September 15, 2016 10 min read 21 Comments
‘ONE SMALL STEP FOR HEADPHONES, A GIANT LEAP FOR MUSICKIND’
The space race for the title of “World’s Best Headphones” has become a hot competition lately with lots of contenders claiming rights to that mystical moniker.
It seems every other week we hear about the latest, greatest ‘Best Headphone Ever’ rocketing into the stratosphere to plant its flag atop the biggest rock orbiting the headphone universe. Unfortunately, there’s also been a faked moon landing or two by headphones that have long since come and gone like drifting galactic stardust.
Lunar conspiracy theories aside, the Focal Utopia is absolutely the real deal. Our Headphone.com review team had the chance to spend several weeks testing the Utopia with all kinds of music and comparing it to a few other high-end cans. Needless to say, it’s been a glorious time getting up close and personal with the Utopia.
Just to be clear from the very outset, we have not heard another headphone with this level of accuracy, smoothness, dynamism and just plain fun combined into one. Every experienced reviewer on our headphone.com staff seemed to catch a case of slack jaws and far-away eyes when they first put the Utopia on their noggin. With the Utopia, Focal has hit it so far out of the park, we're not even going to look for the ball.
The Utopia taps deeply into a wellspring of human musical emotion that’s really hard to come by in audio, no matter how much you spend. We’re not ashamed to say we got a bit teary on more than one occasion listening to the Utopia - and not just because of its eye-watering $4,000 price tag. If you want to hear a headphone with a nearly perfect tonal balance, immediately responsive dynamic speed and the most intelligent, revealing insight into the music we’ve experienced to date, the Focal Utopia beckons.
BERYLLIUM M-SHAPED DRIVERS
The Focal Utopia circumaural dynamic headphone is the end result of the high-caliber design and acoustic research facilities a cutting-edge audio company like Focal brings to manufacturing headphones. The Utopia incorporates a whole host of performance features directly descended from Focal’s large room speakers, some of which can run up into the $200,000 mark. It’s obvious Focal spared no expense when they set out to make the Utopia truly the world’s best headphone. We think its perhaps as close to a perfect headphone as exists in today’s ever-evolving super high-end audio world.
For starters, the rare beryllium metal drivers employed by Focal in their top audiophile speakers were re-engineered from scratch to essentially function as a ‘near-field’ speaker array in the Utopia. For the Focal speaker audio engineers, their fresh design concept for the Utopia headphones was essential to re-create miniaturized but equally high-performance versions of their famed big speakers.
The Utopia’s unique patented dome-shaped driver - called ‘M-shaped’ drivers by Focal - delivers an extremely long and perfectly linear pistonic driver excursion motion that allows for 50,000 vibrations per second compared to other high-end headphones measuring at around half that rate. That translates into an immaculate clarity of tone and timbre that distinctly defines all parts of the music with each instrument living and breathing in its own seamless individual space within the larger ensemble. Every nuance of the recording no matter how delicate or low-level seems to have a real organic weight in the overall presentation of the Focal Utopia, making it the most speaker-like and emotionally rewarding headphone listening experience ever in our headphone.com opinion.
STEAK AND LOBSTER
Stacking up the Focal Utopia against its most logical direct competitor, the Audeze LCD-4 priced at an identical $4,000, each headphone is a towering monolith of jaw-dropping sound. It’s a really difficult pick between two completely stunning but slightly different musical approaches. Both have awesome acoustic strengths and stellar musical qualities that rate at the tippy-top of the headphone world. How do you choose between filet mignon and grilled lobster?
With that salivating dichotomy in mind, the big $4,000 question becomes how does the planar magnetic Audeze LCD-4 headphone compare against the beryllium-fueled dynamic driver design of the Focal Utopia?
Safe to say its damn hard to go wrong with either, but each headphone offers its own specific signature and distinct musical philosophy. Again, at this exalted performance level its really not a question of simplistic dualities like right/wrong, good/bad or even better/worse; it merely boils down to which headphone best represents your own particular sound preferences and subjective musical tastes.
As we discussed in our original review of the Audeze LCD-4, we think it offers the best, most textural bottom-end in headphones with a deep, accurate bass extension and tight control that remains second to none. Its low-octave muscular brawn and foundational tonal heft solidly drives the music with full authority from the bass drum up with absolutely zero murk or flab. For discerning bass lovers not wanting to give up an iota of detail in the mids or highs or lose fast-trajectory dynamics, the LCD-4 remains the headphone to beat.
By contrast, the low-end of the Focal Utopia is perhaps more restrained but in a fully focused way. Although it's not as sub-sonically extended, the bass response of the Utopia is deeply round, solidly punchy and 100% musically satisfying with all the textural detail and taut low-note accuracy you would expect from big room speakers moving much more air. It can also quite capably handle low-end EQ curves so the Focal Utopia is beautifully responsive to frequency tweaks for tone-shaping audiophiles who like to personalize their headphone soundscape with outboard EQ.
DEEP INNER SPACE
The pristine sense of deep space presented by the Focal Utopia is probably its biggest calling card. The airiness and simplicity of the imaging places each instrument, voice or production element in high relief against a vast black background that allows you to hear the most minute musical nuance in almost shocking detail. The soundstage appears nearly limitless with a deep 3-D focus that seems to extend way past your ears. We kept taking off the Utopia headphones during listening tests thinking our room speakers were turned on.
In our opinion, the Audeze LCD-4 probably tends to fall just slightly behind the Focal in resolution and coherence of the mids/highs in spots where the Focal is completely seamless with a liquid tone that never masks detail or constricts upward dynamic movement. The Utopia midranges are present, unified and rendered without etching of any sort while the highs extend free and brilliant with airy space and dimension to spare. And if you really want to hear what your audio system front end is capable of doing, the Utopia will clearly show you the impact of using various sources and even cable changes in your rig. It’s just that revealingly precise a headphone, natch.
The tipping point may well likely be the different fit and ergonomics of the two headphones. The planar magnetic wood-earcup Audeze LCD-4 is significantly larger and heavier compared to the Focal Utopia’s sleek carbon fiber frame and comparatively lighter weight. The Utopia also nicely fits smaller heads, which is basically a no-go with the oversized LCD-4. Listeners using headphones for hours on end may also gravitate to the wearing comfort of the Utopia which has a cushy on-the-ears feel that is much more pleasant for long sessions than the behemoth Audeze build.
THE BEST HEADPHONE EVER?
In the end, we have heard no other headphone that is so incisive and intensely accurate but yet so luscious and emotionally engrossing.
Throwing its steep premium price out the window, we essentially could not find a deal-killing audio weakness with this headphone. Perhaps some bass-heads may feel it needs a touch more low-end oomph, but we'd tend to disagree. Not only do we think the bass response is right on the money without any semblance of excessive bloat or billow, but the Utopia delivers a pure faithfulness to the recording and/or source that is unequaled in our book. So if the bass is mixed up and mastered hot, the Utopia’s increased bass response will reveal that. If the bass is muted or mixed low, the Utopia will plainly show that too. The Focal Utopia has a special access to the genuine truth of the sound that’s a rare find even in high-end headphone land.
Just like its name implies, the Utopia is heavenly nirvana for audiophile headphone enthusiasts and spare-no-expense music lovers. The only ugly downside is trying to go back to other headphones once you’ve heard the Focal Utopia. Now there’s a good reason to weep openly.
READ MORE OF OUR RAVINGS ABOUT THE FOCAL UTOPIA HEADPHONES!
The Focal Utopia arrives at its breathtaking level of acoustic performance by incorporating many aspects of Focal's large room speaker designs into headphones.
The Focal Utopia uses the same ridiculously rare, ridiculously expensive 100% pure beryllium driver element as their giant multi kilo-buck room speakers. Focal engineers at the company's St Etienne, France headquarters employed the same basic design approaches building the Utopia headphones as they would the company’s near-field reference speakers. That means the Utopia comes loaded with fresh innovative ideas and unique materials science that all contribute to its unparalleled sound, fit and finish.
First off, the Utopia’s full-size headphone frame is a super-light carbon fiber developed and manufactured from scratch by Focal at their facility. The ergonomics and comfort for varying head sizes are superb with an even weight distribution that fit all our testers of both sexes extremely well. The adjustable headband is covered in a very plush lambskin and exerts a near-perfect clamping force. Luxurious deep-well lambskin earpads feel gentle on the earlobes and will generally cover the entire ear on most wearers. The deep pads also help to maintain the proper distance relationship between the Utopia speaker drivers which helps with the sense of air and dimensional musical space. The soft memory-foam lambskin leather earpads are easily user replaceable when needed. The aesthetically cool midnight black look is elegant but not overly showy save for the silver cosmetic grillwork covering the dome driver.
Obviously, the Focal Utopia’s bone-rattling 5 Hz up to a ‘dogs-only’ 50,000 kHz frequency range and speed-of-light dynamic range quickness are true technological achievements. But instead of a clinical hard-toned audio reproduction like with some other reference headphones boasting uber-fast transient response times, the Utopia always sounds silky and warm with an uncluttered presentation even during busy or dense musical passages. The Utopia excels at decoding complex sonic salads down to a comprehensible whole while not performing open-heart headphone surgery on the recording. In short, it’s a perfectly smooth, perfectly balanced sound that precisely reveals the interior of the music without ever getting aggro or edgy.
Among the Focal’s many sonic strengths is the assured extension of the upper highs where the Utopia never appears disorganized or scattered. Cymbals, in particular, have a truly natural shimmer and decay without the faintest trace of glassy harshness; we’re not sure we’ve heard difficult upper treble frequencies sound so realistic and well-defined before. Vocals also sound as human and real as we’ve ever experienced on big speakers and the Utopia really allows you to hear the breathiness and grain of the voice in its original recorded state. Studio production effects are laid plain and the Utopia’s mastery of quiet/loud dynamics and light/dark shadings is impressive and highly nuanced.
Given its stellar audio performance, the Focal Utopia is a fairly efficient headphone at 80 Ohms impedance with 104dB sensitivity specs, so any great headphone amp should do it full justice. We listened to it with an array of amps including our own new little wonder, the HeadRoom Standard Amp, and the Utopia sounded pure, strong and confident with any set-up we tried. Keep in mind the Utopia is a completely open-back earcup construction with the dome driver transducers placed close to the vented outer grill structure, so the sound will leak out from the cans when listening at average to loud volumes.
Despite its uncompromising accuracy, the Utopia can be listened to for hours on end with no discernible fatigue - a testament to the emotional access this headphone grants listeners looking to connect with pure musical bliss. We’ve heard no other headphone that lives and breathes with the music any better than the Focal Utopia. The Utopia has a sound that’s somehow both analytically transparent and musically juicy and it begged our ears for repeated listenings to anything we could throw at it. You’ll likely lose some major sleep enjoying the Focal Utopia late into the wee hours discovering hidden details in basically every bar of your favorite tunes
The detachable Utopia headphone cable is also a proprietary balanced/shielded construction by Focal and extends for a long 13 ft terminating to a high-quality Neutrik ¼” stereo plug (a mini 3.5mm plug adapter is not included). The headphone cord securely connects into the Utopia headphones using solid 3-pin LEMO-type plugs. The thick headphone cord is a bit on the heavy side and probably beefy enough to double as a tow strap in emergencies. Focal has over-built the Utopia cable to eliminate any potential for internal fraying or braid damage and it will assuredly last the lifetime of headphones. The Focal cord can be effectively re-terminated for balanced drive amps if desired. The Focal Utopia headphones arrive in a hard-sided padded storage box with a magnet lid and interior red-lined sash. It’s secure and not overdone like some other high-end headphones where the packaging seems to represent a significant fraction of the expense.
And should you want some further justification, just remember you’ll probably own the superbly well-built Utopia headphones for dozens of years to come so its amortized cost over time is really a total bargain! When presented with some helpful creative accounting, the Focal Utopia can even have a high 'WAF' (Wife Acceptance Factor).
All kidding aside, we’ve yet to have one person - even those skeptical friends who are not particularly into headphones - try the Utopia and not be completely bowled over by the sound. We think humans of all sexes, creeds and dimensions will be wowed by the Focal Utopia. For discerning audio and music freaks who can appreciate the best sound quality possible today, we firmly believe it’s a painfully pricey headphone that is well worth saving up for.
To conclude, we’ll say again we rarely find ourselves getting so caught up in the music as we have with the Focal Utopia. We tend to talk a lot about getting “inside the sound” and experiencing the music just like the musicians or producers did on the original takes. The Utopia brings that exacting, intense level of precision and impact you hear at the concert or at the studio to your headphone listening. It's probably the most deeply dynamic and smooth headphone we’ve heard. And somehow it also manages to genuinely project the human feelings behind the music and the artist better than any other headphone currently available.
That’s a complete intangible, of course, but we were able to actually feel and experience our music in new and wonderful ways with the Utopia, which is surprising stuff for those of us who work around great headphones all day!
So, yes sure, the Focal Utopia is a terrifyingly expensive headphone. But for serious music lovers who need to have the best sound quality possible, we think its well worth its extravagant price.
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