Focal Utopia

Hardware Review

Focal Utopia
Friday, July 14, 2017
open-back dynamic headphone
Richard Barclay

When it launched “the world’s best headphone” last summer Focal really put the wind up the headphone community. This sweeping, ‘endgame’ statement had consumers and critics alike clamouring to hear what the fuss was about, and is likely the reason I had to hold out for so long to receive a pair to review!  With the dust now safely settled, I was keen to discover if Focal’s flagship, circumaural, open-back headphone that was four long years in the making lives up to the hype.

La compétition
Priced at £3,495, in what is becoming an increasingly crowded market, Utopia boldly differentiates itself from peers including the Sennheiser HD800S (£1,395) and MrSpeakers Ether Flow (£1,695) and plants its flag in the upper echelons, with big dogs such as the Audeze LCD-4 (£3,595) and Stax SR-009 (£3,495).  Focal could have quite easily slapped on a higher premium on a flagship open-back dynamic headphone that boasts a distinct USP over the competition; very rare and expensive Beryllium drive units.  The French audio manufacturer has certainly never lacked confidence in the quality and value of its products; its  reference loudspeakers currently retail at a mortgage-worthy £120k.  In a world of increasingly exorbitant hi-fi pricing, Focal can at least be commended for the decision to make its promise of headphone nirvana compete so closely on price with its nearest rivals.

 

 

Fabriqué en France
There is a fascinating white paper available from Focal’s website that explains in detail the rationale behind Utopia’s design, but I'll do my best to summarise.  Instead of implementing conventional headphone driver technology, Focal’s engineers sought to develop a real full-range driver that would avoid the mechanical compromises faced by other headphone manufacturers, compromises that they argue result in undesirable distortions.  Using their Grande Utopia EM reference loudspeaker as inspiration, a painstaking four-year development process has produced an extremely lightweight, yet unprecedentedly rigid and responsive 40mm “M-shaped” driver made from Beryllium that can produce a wide-band and sufficiently flat 5Hz to 50kHz frequency response without the need for either electrical or mechanical tuning compensation.  Focal believe the linear and responsive pistonic motion of this drive unit naturally preserves the integrity of the incoming audio signal and, as a result, provides a level of resolution superior to any other headphone currently on the market.  The white paper also notes that manufacturing and assembly processes have been fine-tuned to such an extent that the left and right drivers installed into each Utopia headphone are sonically matched to within an impressive ±0.5dB.

Élégant et furtif
Beryllium drivers aside, £3.5k buys you an impeccable quality of design and construction.  Utopia is elegant yet stealthy in appearance.  Dark and mysterious, if a headphone can be sexy then Utopia is surely the most alluring example that has ever been crafted.  Only its sex appeal is not just skin-deep.  Every aspect of its design has genuine purpose and is of true high-end quality.  From the curvaceous carbon fibre yokes to the pristine brushed aluminium grilles protecting drivers that are subtly encircled by the proud statement, “Utopia - Beryllium - Fabrique en France”,  not a single detail of the aesthetic finish or ergonomic function has been ignored.  The level of craftsmanship is simply stunning and a clear notch above any other headphone I have encountered at this price.  Even the bound and stitched carry case that Utopia ships in is an item of beauty in its own right.  The internal lining of the magnetically-locking lid with miniature profile precision-cut acoustic foam is an especially chic feature.

 

 

Confort sans fatigue
Sound quality often comes at the expense of weight in high-end headphones and, at 490g excluding cable, Utopia is no featherweight.  A plush padded leather headband and 20mm thick memory foam earpads clad in lambskin do however put it amongst the most comfortable headphones for extended listening sessions.  I am particularly fussy about on-head comfort and could happily wear these for hours without fatigue.  Though not as internally cavernous as Sennheiser HD800/HD800S, Utopia’s 60mm x 50mm driver apertures are roomy enough to accommodate most pinnae sizes.  Earcup placement is often a useful tool for optimising performance, with audible changes in image clarity possible from very small shifts in cup position.  Utopia is particularly responsive to this and there is a definite sweet spot in which the clearest and most resolute presentation is obtained.  It is therefore worth taking a few extra seconds at the beginning of each listening session to ensure you have these headphones optimally positioned.

Fortes connexions
Connection is made via sturdy 9.5mm Lemo sockets at the base of each earcup, the corresponding plugs have a self-locking bayonet system for a secure fit.  The headphones are bundled with a premium, fully symmetrical and shielded four metre long OFC lead so thick that even hardcore cablephiles will be satisfied that the quality of linkage between earspeaker and amplifier has not been overlooked.  The cord is terminated with a single-ended 6.35mm stereo jack.  With the increasing popularity of balanced drive headphone amps and potentially significant audible benefits in my experience of eliminating the common ground plane between amplifier and headphone, the absence of a cable with XLR plug/s seems an opportunity missed.  There is however a plethora of aftermarket cables available, and owners can of course have their existing cable re-terminated if inclined.

Exigences de l'amplificateur
Utopia is relatively efficient with a sensitivity of 104dB/1mW and impedance of 80 Ohms, which maintains compatibility with modern devices that are incapable of producing large voltage swings.  It does however partner best to a source that has low output impedance to provide sufficient electrical damping of the drivers.  This was confirmed by my pairing to a vintage Technics SU-V9 DC, a top-of-the-line integrated made in an era when very high impedance headphones were the norm.  While sublimely articulate through 300 Ohm Sennheisers, an undesirably ponderous and bass-heavy presentation was delivered through the 80 Ohm Focals.  It is recommended that source output impedance should be at least eight times smaller than that of the headphone.  To provide a level playing field, four low-impedance solid-state headphone amps at different price points were selected to test Utopia’s ability to scale: a budget Schiit Fulla portable at under £100; a sub-£500 Schiit Jotunheim; an SPL Phonitor 2 in the £1.5k class; and finally a £3,800 Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD in the “money no object” category.  All four amplifiers share very low output impedances of between 0.1 and 1.25 ohms and are noted their tonal neutrality.

 

 

Son de qualité supérieure
In listening tests, even the budget Fulla was capable of driving Utopia to sufficiently loud levels without patent colouration and provided a decent, albeit comparatively grainy, insight into what this headphone is capable of.  While an amp that costs 1/35th its partnering earspeakers isn’t a candidate for critical listening, it is at least good to know that an affordable portable source can be called upon if you're in a fix.  The significant increases in power supply headroom from Fulla’s 5V to Jotunheim’s 48V and Phonitor 2’s 120V rails, and 430HAD’s twin toroidal transformers that can output a face-melting 8W into 50 ohms, provided a much truer representation of Utopia’s exquisitely cultured tonal palette and exceptional resolving abilities.

Driven by quality amplification, there is a marked improvement in clarity, openness, low-level detail retrieval and dynamic responsiveness.  This is a headphone that keeps giving as you climb the source ladder.  It is difficult to describe its tonal Smorgasbord using clichéd descriptors, as there is no immediately recognisable tuning.  Utopia isn’t bright or toppy, neither is it warm or dark, it is simply beautifully well-balanced throughout the audible range.  It is texturally intoxicating but has a silky smoothness that can be lapped up for hours without fatigue, and yet it still allows all elements of a recording to stream through in unbelievable detail.  It is very rare for a headphone to deliver both unfaltering tonal cohesion and exceptional resolution, but somehow Utopia masters it.

Achieving solid and extended bass response from an open-back headphone has always been a challenge since there is no sealed rear chamber to provide pressure loading, and thus invariably some form of trickery is required.  Utopia employs no tricks, yet its low end is amongst the most natural and satisfying I have heard from an open design.  It is adequately extended, timbrally rich, responsive yet controlled and, most importantly, blends seamlessly into the midband.  Mids are smooth and liquid but carry realistic heft that renders acoustic instruments, piano and the human voice especially with an incredible, lifelike presence, warmth and palpability.  Highs are very linear and contribute just enough detail without intruding.  Those with a preference for sharp outlines and heightened sense of air may wish for just a little more pixie dust up top, but we are probably into hair-splitting territory here. In short, Utopia provides the most naturally balanced, resolving and palpable presentation I have experienced in this price category of open-back headphones. 

It is interesting to observe that, unlike some of its less expensive rivals, Utopia does not throw an especially deep soundstage.  You don’t get so much of an out of head, “auditorium-esque” experience that headphiles have come to love from certain other high-end ‘phones; Utopia places you closer to the performance.  I suspect this intimacy is a natural by-product of its exceptionally balanced frequency response.  It cannot be coincidence that headphones displaying excellent spatial depth also tend to be tuned with a shallow but broad dip across the mid frequencies, giving the impression of increased distance between the listener and stage.  Utopia’s cohesive tonality produces timbres so tangibly vivid that a modest reduction in perspective is, to my ears, a trade-off worth accepting.

 

 

Verdict
I waited almost a year to try this headphone, but the wait was undoubtedly worth it.  Utopia is the most tonally balanced, resolving and musically involving open-back reference headphone I have thus far auditioned in this price category.  A select few others may win out in specific areas, but none come as close to being the total package across a gamut of musical genres.  If you covet the best all-round performer and don’t need to mind the purse strings, Focal’s flagship Utopia ought to be top of your list.

Ancillaries used during testing
Source/s: Mac Mini 2010, MacBook Air 2011
Software: Mac OS 10.11.4, Audirvana Plus 2.6.8, iTunes 12.6
DAC/s: Schiit Bifrost 4490, Schiit Fulla, Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD
Headphone Amplifier/s: Schiit Fulla, Schiit Jotunheim, SPL Phonitor 2, Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD
 

Specifications: 

Type: Circumaural open-back dynamic headphone
Impedance: 80 Ohms
Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
THD: < 0.2% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Frequency response: 5Hz - 50kHz
Driver: 40mm pure Beryllium “M” shape dome
Weight: 490g
Cable/connectors: symmetrical shielded 4m OFC with 1x 6.35mm stereo and 2x 9.5mm Lemo
Carrying case: 326mm x 260mm x 164mm
 

Price: 
£3,495
Manufacturer Details: 

T (+33) 4 77 43 57 00
www.focal.com

Distributor Details: 

Focal-JMlab UK Ltd
T 0845 660 2680
www.focal.com