Focal Utopia Headphones

Simply the Best

Equipment report
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Headphones
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Products:
Focal Utopia
Focal Utopia Headphones

Sound
In a quiet environment the Focal Utopias are among the best sounding and most impressive earphones I have ever experienced. Why did I preface this encomium with “in a quiet environment?” Simple: The Utopia is an open-backed headphone that offers no isolation from outside noise. The Focal is certainly not alone in this regard; Stax electrostatic headphone systems, Sennheiser 800S, and Audeze LCD-4 are also open-backed designs. And while they are all excellent, none of them could be used successfully in the quiet zones of, say, a public library, due to leakage of sound into the outside world. And none would be terribly useful on a NYC subway because they don’t prevent outside sounds from interfering with your music. For those situations you need an earphone that isolates the listener from the outside world, such as the Mr. Speakers Ether C or the Etymotic ER4XR. No open-backed headphone (with the possible exception of the AudioQuest NightHawk) can successfully work out in the world like a closed-back or in-ear design.

But in a quiet listening space there is little I can fault in the Utopia’s sonic presentation. It exemplifies all the sonic advantages that a dynamic driver can deliver. From its lowest register to its highest frequencies the Utopia speaks with an authoritative voice. With no crossover to affect phase its sound is coherent and articulate. The drivers are matched so well that when I ran my standard full-range sine-wave sweep in mono (15Hz to 15kHz), the image stayed dead center with no shifts. (A shift would indicate mismatches between the right and left driver’s frequency response.)

I was impressed by how easy it was to listen into a mix with the Utopia. There was a delightful lack of extraneous noise, low-level electronic interference, or electrostatic haze. Along with this listening ease, the Utopia offered imaging that was more precise than what I’m used to from the vast majority of large-diaphragm planar designs.

Although I found the Utopia’s overall harmonic balance to be extraordinarily neutral, it also had superb low-end extension and control. These ’phones spent a good amount of time tethered to the SPL Phonitor X and Moon Audio Inspire Dragon IHA-1 headphone amps. Although the solid-state 120-volt-rail SPL delivered slightly more bass than the single-ended-tube IHA-1, they both had a level of bass definition and extension that I’ve rarely heard from any transducer, headphone or room-based. Listening to DJ Snake’s “Too Damned Low” via Tidal, I could explore the textures and rhythms of the synth bass-lines with ease.

Although the Utopia has oodles of bottom end, that low bass does not interfere with or muddy up its midbass, upper bass, and lower midrange. The Utopia has a clarity and openness combined with a harmonic density and absence of huffiness that are quite addictive. At one point I went from the Utopia to a new $900 pair of designer cans, and the first thing I noticed was how congested the designer ’phones sounded in comparison.


The problem with using a single driver to cover the entire frequency range is that it is exceedingly difficult to make a full-range transducer that is harmonically neutral and has even power handling throughout its entire range. The Utopia’s beryllium driver has, during my listening, proved to be an exception to that generality. Both its midrange and treble response were smooth, even, and lacking in any noticeable peaks or valleys, especially in the critical 1-to-3kHz region. That doesn’t mean the Utopia is ruler-flat (no headphones are flat because their frequency curve must compensate for the shape of the ear canal), but the final in-head response was as smooth and as non-peaky as I’ve ever heard from a single-driver design.

One question that I often hear in the headphone world is, “Do these headphones scale up?” This translates to: “If I use a better, more powerful headphone amplifier will the ’phones perform at a higher level?” My experience with the Utopia was that, yes, a bigger, better headphone amp does allow the Utopia to deliver a higher level of performance, but even a smartphone or semi-powerful player, such as the original Astell&Kern AK100, can drive the Utopia successfully with very little noticeable sonic degradation compared to my reference headphone amplifiers. However, even with low-powered sources the Utopia’s performance is so good you may not have as much of a burning desire to upgrade your can amp as with other reference designs.

Competition
At its elevated price-point the Focal Utopia needs to be able to take on all comers, regardless of technology. The Utopia’s primary competition at a very similar price is the Audeze LCD-4. And although I did not have a LCD-4 to directly compare with the Utopia, I did have the LCD-2 Version 2. In comfort the Utopia was a clear winner. It is lighter with less side-pressure. Since the LCD-4 is similar in size and weight to the LCD-2, it too would be a less comfortable option, especially if you favor long listening sessions.

Although I no longer had the Stax SR-L700 around for comparison I did have a pre-production sample of the new Sonoma electrostatic headphones ($5000 projected MSRP). Sonically both were impressive, and each highlighted the advantages of its particular technologies. The dynamic-driver Utopia was more dynamic, especially in the midbass and low bass, while the Sonoma had the pristine clarity and sparkle that are hallmarks of electrostatic designs. Each offered a different presentation—the Utopia had better lateral focus, but the Sonoma created a larger, more spacious soundstage.

If you have heard the Utopia and love it, but simply can’t afford it, I have two less expensive options that, while not quite as good, capture many of the Utopia’s best sonic qualities: The Focal Elear ($1000), which shares much of the Utopia’s design DNA and at one-quarter its price may be the best value currently available in a $1000 full-sized over-ear ’phone. Another is the Mr. Speakers Ether Flow C ($1795–$1849), a closed can that sounds eerily similar to the Utopia, but offers superior isolation for use out in the world.

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