World's Best Headphone: The Focal Utopia Page 2

Focal Utopia in its Leather bound display case.

Sound Quality
Great googly-moogly these headphones sound GREAT!!!

Dianna Krall's "Popsicle Toes" just happens to be at the top of my reference tracks playlist. I punch play. The tasty intro is captivatingly clear. The stand-up bass is rich with the harmonics of its wooden girth; my sonic sense sees its big body clearly. The drum kit bits populate a space across the left inside of my head. The image isn't deep, but it's shockingly stable and precise. I can virtually see the drums and cymbals as the sticks are moved around the kit. Dianna's voice enters 18 seconds in...she's dead center right behind my eyeballs. Her slightly husky voice is perfectly integrated and present...I can almost smell the cigarettes and whiskey on her breath as it hits the back of my nose.

And then, at 21 second in, right after she sings, "When God gave out rhythm...", two chords are gently played on the piano. My goodness, I've never heard such sensitively percussive, harmonically rich, filled with weight and substance sound from a piano. Most astonishing is the interplay of tones, harmonics, and intermodulation making the whole of the chord a rich textured wave of sound. I was transfixed until track's end.

I don't think I've ever heard a headphone like this before. Like its little brother the Elear, the Utopia is dynamic and punchy, but unlike the Elear, the Utopia has fantastic clarity and nuance to balance out the raw power. Everything comes together in such a clear, coherent picture I fail to remain objective and simply bask in the music. Wow...just wow, this is a terrific listening experience.

Okay, enough with the romance—because I sure do have one with the Utopia—time to get picky. There's only two places in which I can fault these headphones. First, I could use a bit more bass under 200Hz. The Elear hits harder and is more potent in this area. Other than add a bit more bass, I decided there was no need to EQ any other areas—wouldn't want to mess up the apparently excellent clarity with a bunch of DSP filters. Thing is, I wouldn't call these headphones bass shy—for most audiophiles the Utopia will be pleasantly substantial in the lower registers. Here's how I ended setting my EQ:


The other area that's rather unusual is that the image is not very big or deep. Previously, I've been of the opinion that good imaging on headphones is primarily due to good transient response. I figured clean edges provide the cues needed to localize sound better. I've also had the impression that headphones that image deeply tend to lack dynamic punch, and headphones with punch tend not to image well. Having now heard the Utopia I'm beginning to call these observations into question.

What I'm hearing with the Utopia is breathtakingly clear. Transient response measurements are good—almost as good as the HD 800 S—but the image remains close to my head. The image that's there though is pristine. In listening when I compare the Utopia to the HD 800 S or HE1000, it's quite clear to me that the reproduction of cymbals is spot on with the Utopia; with the HE1000 they're more diffuse and less natural; with the HD 800 S they're clean, but somewhat unnaturally sheeny. It seems to me the laid back sound of those two headphones in the presence region—say between 800Hz and 2.5kHz—gives the impression of more distance between me and the vocalist.

What I'm geting at here, I think, is that depth of image on a headphone may not be something achieved with accuracy as much as it might be an illusion caused by a change in tonal response. After all, a normal stereo signal played on headphones doesn't have very many real spatial cues. Maybe, when done really well, headphone reproduction will not have a very spacious image, just a tight clean one. Food for to hear your comments on this idea.

Lastly, I noticed in the measurements a significant change in the top half of the mid-range as I moved the headphones during measurements. When I moved the headphones around on my head and listened, I found they became somewhat brighter as I moved them back on my head, and warmer as I moved them forward. Up and down movements didn't make much difference. The irregularities in placement position in normal wear won't make much difference to the sound you hear—These headphones fit nicely and in pretty much the same position every time you put them on—just know that a slight tweak to the sound is available with forward/back position change.

Sennheiser HD 800 S - Thin and uninvolving when compared directly. Things sound disembodied and distant and lack the presence and heft of the Utopia. Astonishingly, the Utopia's treble sounds cleaner and more natural; in comparison I can easily hear how the over-emphatic 5kHz area on the Sennheiser disrupts the naturalness of the sound here. I'm sick of fighting with the HD 800. How many man-hours do you think have gone into fixing the fatal flaws of this otherwise world-class headphone? *sigh*

HiFiMAN HE1000 - The objectivist half of my brain just can't get itself wrapped around the fact that this obviously technically flawed headphone remains so.damned.alluring. The tight clean image of the Focal is now released and floating much wider around my head. Imaging is more blurry and less precise; the "size" of each instrument is larger and there is less separation between instruments. The tonality of cymbals is a little too bright bringing them forward in the mix, but, for reasons that quite escape me, the treble has a soft, relaxing nature to it and the slightly excessive brightness is surprisingly pleasant. Bass on the HE1000 is a little stronger, which I like, but it's not as tight and punchy due to its relaxed presentation. I'd say the Utoia is way more accurate and it would be my preferred listen...but I do think many people would prefer the HE1000 for its lively yet relaxed sound.

Audeze LCD-X - Switching from the Utopia, the first thing I notice about the LCD-X is that it sounds a little muffled in comparison. The low treble sounds too laid back. Bass hits harder and is a little higher in level, which I prefer. Image is a bit larger, but not near as deep as the HE1000, and not nearly as precise as the Utopia being a bit fuzzy.

Mr. Speakers Ether - In terms of tonal balance I'd say the Ether is the closest of the bunch I'll compare here. Only a slight reduction in the presence region of the Ether has it sounding slightly laid back compared to the Focal. Image is slightly larger, and somewhat less precise. Dynamics are good, but no where near as punchy as the Utopia. I find the Ether a slightly bright but very well rounded headphone...however, it's pretty easily outclassed by the Utopia's astonishing clarity. (Ether Flow comparisons when I do its review next week.)

Focal Elear - They're both very close to neutral, but I'd say the Utopia is a slightly bright headphone, and the Elear is slightly warm. Bass response is more potend with the Elear, but the treble response of the Utopia is significantly more nuanced and articulate, which has the Elear sounding a bit too polite in comparison. They're both punchy, but the Elear more so, and they both have small imaging, but with the Utopia's it better defined.

Electrostatics - I didn't do any direct comparisons, but from memory, the Utopia would best them in clear, articulate, natural detail. E-stats seem to fuzzy up top too me. And the dynamic punch of the Utopia and Elear would have me heading in that direction every time.

Sound Quality Summary
As the Focals are so rare in the country at the moment that Todd Green from Todd the Vinyl Junkie came over for his first listen to the new Focals. His impression was telling...and it didn't take long at all. I don't remember his exact words, but it was something like, "Man, these Utopias are so balanced and just so much more clear than the others!" He too noticed the small image and powerful dynamic punch, but after his listening session our dialog was much more about which headphones might be able to keep pace with the marvelous characteristics of the Utopia, and much less about how good the Utopia was itself. The forgone conclusion: The Utopia handily bests all comers in the flagship category.

And that pretty much sums it up. A game changer headphone.

Editor's Note: Subsequent to this review I learned that some folks have found that the Utopia with the Elear pads improves the bass response. I found this to be true and posted measurements here. I do suggest Utopia owners spring for some Elear ear pads and try it out. Well worth it, in my opinion.

The Focal Utopia is a sexy beast with rock-solid build quality; looks with just the right mix of conservatism and bling; brimming with technological innovations; and sound quality to die for. I love this headphone.

Though the audio image is small and the bass just a tad light, in every other way this headphone sounds spectacularly good. Tonal balance is beautiful; image, though small is marvelously precise; dynamic punch is terrific; micro-detail is nuanced and well integrated. And everything comes together as whole so well that you simply don't feel the need to just kick back and listen to the glorious music.

It's hard to imagine any headphone at $4000 that will deliver a commensurate value...I certainly wouldn't call the Utopia a bargain. But for the first time ever I'd be willing to say to someone of limited means with a strong interest in headphones, "Yes, this $4000 headphone is worth saving your pennies for."

Of course the Utopia will be going up on the Wall of Fame, and there will definitely be some cans falling off the wall. I'm going to wait until I finish the Mr. Speakers Ether Flow review before I do adjustments on the WoF, but I'm sure things will change quite a bit.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Focal Home page, Utopia product page, and Utopia spec sheet and brochure.
Jude Mansilla's excellent video introducing these new headphones.
SBAF threads here and here.
Head-Fi threads here and here.

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