Focal has been in the speaker business for more than 35 years, but it wasn’t until recently that they decided to take the leap into headphone development. Their initial products took the form of three “Spirit” headphones, now called the One S, Classic and Professional. The line was met with some critical acclaim by the audio press and that collection of sub-$400 closed-back headphones has since become a known quantity within a greater bustling market of personal audio products.
Having earned their sea legs through formal introductions, Focal is now poised for another update to their headphone offerings, this time including a dead-serious flagship effort named Utopia ($4k), a mid-tier Elear ($1k), as well as another refreshed closed-back piece “Listen” ($250). The focus of this review is to address the new flagship, but our formal review of the Elear can also be found [here].
Staring down at my initial listening notes, it becomes clear what we are really dealing with here. “Best vocal presentation I have ever heard from a headphone” is intently written on white parchment in rough penmanship circa the 3rd grade. And that oversimplified statement is really just the start of it all. The first item of order almost reluctantly formed within my head as I start to focus my thoughts. It’s the pistol fire at the starting blocks and already things have gotten heavy. Now, it could just be an over-eagerness for musical stimulation (or perhaps the lack of sleep of the past few days) but as comparisons start to come in, it becomes clear that something special is truly at play. Flagship reviews can be fun; they are certainly exciting. Our brains love to teeter with the idea of grasping the truly best options that can be had in this world. But the weight of the statement shouldn’t be rendered so lightly, or quickly. Careful consideration should be optioned before dropping down the observational gauntlet of greatness. But nonetheless the words remain there, staring back at me from my notebook “Best…ever…”
From my experiences formed over the years, the holy grail of headphones as it relates to a pleasurable listening experience is to emulate the sound of a great loudspeaker setup in a well-treated room. This is much the same sentiment that Focal has frankly stated as their true intent for the design of this headphone. While it seems hard to imagine that we will every be able to truly fool our ears in such a manner, the steps taken with the Utopia edge just bit closer to that goal, and a step further than almost everyone else has been able to achieve.
The creation of the Utopia takes a page from Focal’s loudspeaker lines (Sopra and Utopia) with its use of Beryllium as the material of choice for the single dynamic driver setup. In the floor standing and bookshelf music makers it is utilized as a high frequency tweeter, but in headphone it takes the form of a “M” shaped, wide-range 40mm dome driver. Focal marketing material refers to the pure Beryllium drivers as “loudspeakers” housed in the perfect “room” which is comprised of their open-back earcups and specialized ear pads. While the circumaural mesh-lined cups are transparent enough to let light through, they offer up a surprisingly limited amount of leakage for the size and open design. Not quite the solitude of any closed back operation worth its salt, but significantly less bleed than a pair of Grado SR80i, for instance.
Beryllium doesn’t come up in this conversation by mere chance. The paths of the rare material and Focal crossed a while ago and continue to travel together down the road towards higher fidelity. It is expensive. Its stronger than steel. It is extremely difficult to manipulate due to its toxicity during the manufacturing process. But those inherent hurdles can make the reward that much sweeter. Its strength, rigidity and low relative weight make it fast. And as any hifi headphone designer will tell you, speed is what you need when it comes to drivers made for the pinnacle of the artform.
The weight of the Utopia isn’t nothing, but it isn’t too much either. Apples to apples it reigns in at a fairly hefty 490 grams, which is light compared to the LCD-4’s 600 grams and the Abyss at 620 grams but slightly more than the STAX SR009 (454g) and the HiFiMAN HE-1000 (480g). But regardless of where it falls in line with its peers, it wears the weight of its magnets well. The overall size of the headphone is much less than both the Abyss and LCD-4, and appears at first blush like a much more respectable member of society. Its outward curves fall in line with a relative earcup size and shape that most are used to, however they do stand a bit further out from the head than a Beats headphone. It feels delightfully high-end, as if each nut and bolt is securely fastened to hold in place for years to come. Clamping pressure from the carbon fiber and leather clad padded headband was very satisfactory for this reviewers large-ish head and provided adequate stability without over pressuring the force against the skull to cause discomfort. The adjustable length of the band is standard fare in terms of design (upscale materials aside for one second). No fancy support mechanisms or tension rods at play, but rather a simple and reliable Y-yoke with minimal left/right and up/down swing. It’s a tried and true application that just works, and the feel on head is actually quite impressive considering the weight. Even the carbon fiber parts have fine subtle finish and rounded edges that emit a polished, big picture quality to the full build. The perforated pads are constructed of “Pittards” leather on the exterior and head-facing sides with a small strip of microfiber fabric lining the inmost ring near the drivers. The small holes that cover the pads are neither an accident or purely intended for internal air pressure relief. There is element of design at play that contributes to the entire “loudspeaker in a perfect room” strategy that Focal is focused around. The pads themselves are removable and very comfy when pressed up against the head.
The removable cable connects to the headphone with a somewhat unique Lemo jack. It isn’t your typical off-the-shelve mini XLR or 3.5mm minijack (like the one featured on the Elear) but several after market cable manufacturers (including Nordost and Kimber) will have options available for the headphone should you be so inclined. The black, rubbery cable that comes with the headphone is a staggering 4m-long OFC-shielded wire, by far the longest default cable ever shipped with high-end headphone. More length is good for most in-home applications. Even by placing an amplifier as close as is convenient, a shortage of distance always manages to arise as an issue with the physical leash. External appeal will vary with preference, initial visual comparisons to the Elear created leanings towards its simplified presentation, but most will appreciate the more complex aesthetic design and x shaped visual support of the Utopia’s earcup. In either case, the opportunity to fall in love is substantial. The physical build highly complements both a study feel in hand and the cosmetic takeaway of the centralized badge and grill look that is mirrored from Focal’s Sopra line of loudspeakers.
The package also includes a leather bound, red-stitched case, lined in protective foam. It doesn’t quite serve the practicality of the Audeze Hardigg travel case, but feels durable enough for long-term storage and closes with a satisfying magnetic seal.
Before diving directly into head to head comparisons, its possible to pull some serviceable observations right off the bat. An initial introduction parts the way for a fairly unique soundstage presentation. Although a mere psychoacoustic phenomenon, the perception of space and instrument distance from the listener’s cranium is larger than standard expectations and surrounds in a very round and dimensional manner. The fabric of which is a light and airy, comparisons to almost every other headphone on the market leaves the listener with a sense of either a shorter distance and/or flatter sound field. The only exception that turns out results came from the HD800 which was occasionally able to deceive the minds ear to greater width, but at the expense of a natural approach to the subject. The Utopia’s sonic projection often felt more robust, taller, deeper, holographic and ultimately more realistic during listening tests. The organic approach from the Focal flagship sounds much more like a virtual room whereas the 800’s staging felt exaggerated by comparison.
The polarizing Sennheiser HD800 is a comfortable wear, but its approach in the treble can be off-putting for some. The Utopia’s treble was preferential on many levels. Extended, smooth and light on its feet, the high frequencies left more a natural and approachable vibe without suffering any loss detail. It feels more “out there” than “in here” compared to almost any popular headphone on the market. The sense of space created around the treble regions is what makes the Focal flagship most unique in its approach. For whatever reason, the headphone appears to be capable of placing instruments more in front of the listener than merely projections from the side. The headphone further proved its chops by placing the “cut through” acoustic guitar and mandolin from the occasionally thin-sounding HDTracks 24/96 version of REM’s Losing My Religion further out and up in the sound field than ever before. Again, the keys to the car here are really dimensionality, sonic placement and spaciousness. Extension for the upper end of spectrum feels like it travels on for days. In terms of overall treble presence, those familiar with the HiFiMAN line (in this case specifically the HE-560) will most likely find the Utopia’s balance on the high end a little less forward, but closer than some of the Audeze LCD entries (LCD-3, LCD-4). Highs are rendered without any sense of undue tension (unless the track inherently contains some) and shimmer with non-fatiguing tones that never sound thin, crispy or exaggerated for the sake of faux detail.
Bass response from Diana Krall’s I’m a Little Mixed Up brought some interesting light to the Utopia’s low end. The stand up bass featured predominantly in the intro portrays two opportunities for evaluation. The first is the actual pluck of the note, followed by the trailing string vibrations that quickly grow out of the source. The response from the beryllium driver is some of the best reproduction from a dynamic headphone driver, regardless of price. It was seamlessly able to produce a good sub-bass presence and plenty of shove for music’s hindquarters. Not only powerful and moving, it was also spectacularly tight and exact in an area than can historically fall apart on lesser cans of this type. Against the Audeze LCD-4 backed by the Auralic’s VEGA and Questyle CMA 800r the LCD-4 had just a little more shove to the initial portion of the pluck, followed by a natural decay into the reverberations. Through the Utopia a more even balance was presented between the two events. This slight difference in response proved to be somewhat unique however, as with other solid state amplifier options it wasn’t noticeable at all. The level of bass presence in relationship to the rest of the spectrum was very well proportioned, which runs very similar to well tempered reference found in the LCD-4. Focal’s $1k Elear is slightly bigger in this department, but still never stretched beyond the “fun” sounding category. The new flagship pounds the pavement in a space where it belongs. Its weighty response plays at the appropriate reference level to the rest of the spectrum and where most audiophiles will most likely identify as correct and natural.
In an unusual twist of fate, perhaps the polarizing section of the spectrum may be the mids for the Utopia, if an area was to be poked or prodded long enough. Impressions from the two areas most hotly loved or hated (bass and treble) feel very right, unique and exceptional to this reviewers ears, as is the overall detail, presence and imaging. Detail in the mids is among the highest in the land, outpacing planars like the LCD-X (less grain) and the Oppo PM-1 (more transparency). Even though Focal’s mid-tier Elear shares some of the same shaping and design elements, the switch from Aluminum-Magnesium to Beryllium creates a superior, more responsive sound by comparison. There is a full-body open sound to the center that is truly high fidelity at its core. Some might still prefer the sonic tapestry of the Audeze house sound and its information rich tones throughout the midband, but it’s very hard to argue with the added dimensionality of the Utopia. Like the solid low end, the mids never sound too far forward or even hint at a letter shape other than “B” for balanced.
As amazing as the headphone sounds, perhaps one of the most improved things that help separate it from the rest of its completion is its wearablity. Again, the headphone isn’t light, but it is remarkably smaller and more comfortable than both the Abyss and LCD-4 in their current state. STAX headphones are not capable of any sort of mobility given their tether to large (and usually expensive) amplification. At 80 ohms of impedance and a sensitivity of 104dB, the Utopia is also more usable in a variety of situations than a vast number of more demanding headphones that stretch to nearly every price point. While an appropriate source and dedicated headphone amplifier are certainly needed for the headphone to sound its best, the fall off in quality from internal amplifiers with minimal punch was less severe than more demanding cans.
Is the Utopia the world’s greatest headphone? Flavors and tech preferences could still push that claim to fame around to other planar or electrostatic options should a listener’s fascination with mint chocolate chip and sonic cookie dough get the better of them. For most intents and purposes, a more fitting statement to make is that Focal’s new flagship is easily the best dynamic headphone ever made to date and carries all the weight, panache and accolades that entails. Heavy stuff indeed.
More info: http://www.focal.com/
On Adorama: https://www.adorama.com/foutopia.html
The Utopia, [Elear], and Listen are currently available for purchase from select dealers worldwide.