Focal Utopia - Flagship Open-Back Headphone - Review

September 04, 2018

Focal Utopia - Flagship Open-Back Headphone - Review

Review written by Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)

Introduction

Watching the incredible growth of the headphone industry has amazed me, but the trend I’ve noticed that unfortunately grew concurrently is the explosion of headphone prices. Expensive headphones aren’t a new idea—the Sennheiser HE-90, Sony MDR-R10, Audio Technica L3000, and Ultrasone Edition 7 all cost thousands of dollars when they came out, but these were typically low in production to show the public what the manufacturer can accomplish. But in 2009 came a turning point. The Sennheiser HD800 was released at $1,500, which at the time seemed astronomic. Before the HD800, the AKG K701, Beyerdynamic DT880, and Sennheiser HD650 were considered reasonably “high end” and the most expensive of the three was the HD650, at $500. There were more expensive headphones such as the $700 Grado RS1, Sony SA5000, and Denon D5000, but the current “mid-fi trio” is what many people considered “end game” if they didn’t start a much more expensive Stax or Koss electrostatic system. In the same year, Audeze released their LCD-2 and Head-Direct/Hifiman released the HE-5. From there, the high-end headphone scene exploded. With that explosion also came a price race, with the $2,000 Audeze LCD-3 released in 2011 Hifiman’s $3,000 HE-1000 released in 2015. It’s gotten so common for a flagship to be released at several thousands of dollars that when Focal released the Utopia at $4,000, the most surprising thing to me wasn’t that it cost so much, it was that it was released out of nowhere by a speaker company with little headphone experience. And after hearing it, what surprised me most was how good it sounded.

Focal’s first foray into headphones was plagued with controversy. In 2012, Focal released the Spirit One, a closed headphone that retailed at $279. I never bought one myself because I’d heard of a multitude of problems, the most worrisome is severe driver diaphragm issues and variation, but the problem was eventually fixed. The first Focal headphone I heard was actually from their second round of releases—the Spirit Professional. I thought it sounded good for its price range, if a bit boring and too warm for me. I was tempted to buy one for myself at one point but many reported that the build quality did not seem solid enough for my intended use as portable headphones, which is admittedly harsher than many probably are.

But the Utopia couldn’t be more different. The Utopia actually feels like a flagship headphone, with soft leather, comfortable pads, carbon fiber arms, and metal cups. It actually looks like it costs what it does, with details such as its large red beryllium magnet peeking through the grill alluding to the idea that the Utopia is a special headphone. If I had any complaints, it would be that I’m not a huge fan of the Focal’s use of carbon fiber for the Utopia’s arms. While it’s a light weight and sturdy material, I can’t help but feel metal would have been a more sensible material to use. I’ve seen a few reports of Utopia arms snapping which probably would not have happened if the arms were metal. While carbon fiber is a very strong material, it responds less well to stress focused on a single point than steel, so if the Utopia happens to fall from a high enough position the wrong way, the shock may snap it.

 The arms are the only complaint I have about the build though; the rest of the headphone is built fantastically. I did not notice any creaking on the particular unit I used, and the other five or so I’ve used over the past year and a half didn’t exhibit creaking either. The pads are lined with perforated leather and soft foam. They may be slightly small for those with big ears, but people with ears around the average height of 6.3cm or ~2.5in should be fine. The foam-padded headband uses the same leather but the part that touches the uses head is a suede-like material. While a strap generally distributes weight better, especially for a relatively heavy headphone like the 490g Utopia, I didn’t have any problems with comfort.

Sound

The Focal Utopia sounds...good. That’s not a vague cop out due to of a lack of words to describe a headphone, it simply sounds complete, more than any other headphone I’ve heard or owned. Is it the best headphone I’ve ever heard? Not necessarily—it has issues that distract me at times, and there are other headphones that surpass the Utopia in certain aspects, but the Utopia’s balance and strengths work well for most music I threw at it better than those individual headphones. The Utopia’s purpose seems to be an “only” headphone, one that someone can leave the hobby with and not feel like they’re really losing too much.

I primarily used my reference system for reviewing the Utopia, which consists of a Cavalli Audio Liquid Fire and an RME ADI-2 DAC, but I also tested it out with a variety of sources, such as my iPhone 7’s Lightning dongle, a cMoy, and a modded Bottlehead S.E.X. 2.1 C4S to show how it scaled with better equipment. Surprisingly, the Utopia sounded fantastic out of even the Lightning dongle. The bass sounded a little less clean out of the dongle, but the bass actually sounded cleaner out of the dongle than the S.E.X. which, in retrospect, isn’t surprising due to the S.E.X.’s higher 2nd order distortion, but it was enough to show that the Utopia isn’t unlistenable out of even the most basic of sources.

Bass

The Utopia’s bass is incredibly linear, especially for an open dynamic headphone where rolloff is common. It’s not as flat as many planars, but it has a good evenness in its upper bass to keep it from fogging up the low midrange and make it seem overly warm, which the Sennheiser HD800 does at times. Sub extension was quite respectable, about as much as the HD800 if not a bit more. I actually got the Utopias to rumble with sub-heavy music like James Blake’s “Limit To Your Love” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Backbeat Freestyle.” It has a very slight amount of blurring in bass runs such as Youngsta’s “Destruction,” indicating a moderate amount of second order distortion. I can see those who are used to some thickness in bass thinking the Utopia is on the thin side, but the Utopia’s bass is what has always consistently impressed me most, as it fits my target for bass quantity almost perfectly. 

Midrange

The Utopia’s midrange is a mixed bag. It has a slight forwardness around 1kHz that adds vibrancy and energy. It’s not quite so forward that I would characterize it as shouty like in the SR and RS line of Grados or even the Focal Elear. Songs such as Petra Haden’s “Cuckoo Clock” and Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” can be very harsh on headphones with a 1-2kHz boost, but the Utopia manages to stay behind the line of harshness and instead integrates it well with the rest of the sound. It brings vocals and instruments in this range such as trumpets and guitars up front and engages the listener in a way that I’ve only heard the Hifiman HE6 do.

I noticed some very strange behavior in the upper midrange around 4kHz. It sounded like a sort of resonance that made upper midrange decay sound off and affected timbre to the point of making it sound artificial. After about a week of trying to get used to the Utopia’s sound, it became obvious every time I used it and became distracting. The resonance probably won’t be audible to those who don’t focus on it, but it mars an otherwise impressive midrange.

Treble

The Utopia’s treble is surprisingly uneven. I’ve noticed that the treble is a bit harsh since hearing it for the first time in early 2017, but getting more time with it really made their treble unevenness show. There’s a mild peak around 6kHz—not unlike the HD800—but I never found the Utopia to be particularly sibilant, which a peak in this area should accentuate. However, this peak comes with a matching dip in the low treble causing some slight dullness that, when combined with a mid treble peak, made the treble presentation rather disappointing. The dip into a spike emphasized the harshness, but unlike with the Focal Elear and many other headphones with a mid-treble peak, the Utopia did not fatigue me in the same way. The Utopia had a pleasing amount of air past 10kHz, and its lack of thickness in the low midrange and upper bass allowed the air to shine through so the Utopia never sounded closed-in.

Comparisons

The headphones I was most interested in comparing the Utopia against were a (stock) Sennheiser HD800 and a Hifiman HE-6. The only mods the HE-6 has are a grill cloth and foam removal by its owner who graciously loaned them to me, which, from recollection, does not change the sound in any significant way other than a bit more air in the top end. These three headphones measure rather similarly in frequency response graphs, so they seem like a natural comparison to show that even though headphones may measure similarly in frequency response, they can vary greatly in other ways. Plus, these three happen to be the three headphones that fit my preferences more than almost any other headphone I’ve heard.

Sennheiser HD800

These have been my reference for the past four or so years, so I’ve gotten to know them better than any other headphone. I have a number of problems with it, namely the fact that it’s a bit too boosted in the low midrange, which, in combination with the dipped upper midrange and large soundstage, makes a lot of things, especially vocals, sound too distant for me. Timbre for many instruments also sounds off, which often distracts me when I’m listening critically. The treble that many people seem to dislike has never bothered me though. Despite my issues with them, I still think among the high-end headphone market, the HD800 is still one of the most well-rounded and, I shudder to say, the best value, if a $1,500 headphone can be considered a “good value.”

The HD800 tries its best to sound like a pair of nearfield speakers, showing good depth and fantastic center image while the Utopia’s small soundstage never let me forget it’s a headphone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as the more immediate, direct sound presentation can be preferable to some people. I do wish the Utopia sounded “bigger” though, because at times, music was a bit crowded-sounding in comparison to the HD800.

The Utopia’s bass extends more and is much more balanced than the HD800, with a smaller upper bass and midbass hump and actual sub rumble versus the HD800. The Utopia and HD800 both have very low bass distortion but both did sound slightly muddy at times, and the HD800’s slight bass elevation made the distortion more noticeable and blurred complicated bass passages a little bit more than the Utopia.

Midrange preference is going to depend on the user, as both have some issues that may be irritating to some but not to others. As mentioned, the HD800’s upper midrange is dipped and introduces a feeling of distance, augmented by the thick low midrange creating a slight feeling of congestion. The Utopia’s midrange in that area is much more forward and doesn’t have the same feeling of distance or congestion and a more natural timbre in general. But the 4kHz issue I hear became quite frustrating the more I used the Utopia.

I actually find the Utopia’s treble to be more grating than the HD800’s. They both have uneven treble, but the HD800’s treble abnormalities are centered around a peak at around 6kHz whereas the Utopia has a small peak at 6k, then a dip, then another peak in the mid-treble around 9kHz. The HD800 actually sounds smoother in the treble than the Utopia because of this. They have a similar amount of high end extension, but the Utopia sounds clearer overall to me because the HD800’s extra thickness makes the overall sound congested at times. Though, the HD800 seemed to be just a little bit better at picking out small microdetails (like coughs in the crowd during live recordings) that the Utopia sometimes blurred.

Overall, given the price difference, it’s surprising how well the HD800 keeps up with the Utopia. While the HD800’s initial $1,500 pricing seemed shocking in 2009, it’s bizarre to think that in the current market, the HD800’s now slightly lower $1,400 price makes them look like a good value relative to the $4,000 Utopia. While the Utopia overall is a more tonally pleasing headphone to listen to music with due to its more forward upper midrange and clearer sound, I can absolutely understand those who prefer the HD800; the HD800’s presentation is like no other headphone, and when combined with its technical abilities, it offers something that the Utopia just cannot do.

HiFiMan HE-6

The Hifiman HE-6 is a legendary headphone, with a stated 83.5dB/mW sensitivity and Tyll of InnerFidelity measuring one closer to around 77dB/mW, saying the HE-6 is hard to drive is a bit of an understatement. I generally like to say reaching 115dB peaks for especially dynamic music is my definition of “well-driven” and to reach that, you need about 6.3W of power. 110dB is a more popular guideline though, and one needs about 2W to get to those peaks. The HE-6 is what I would consider my favorite headphone. It’s not the best headphone by any technical measure, but it has this unique quality to it that begged for it to be played loudly. The HE-6 has gotten me closer to the “live concert” feeling than any other headphone has because of how viscerally it presents music, and the Utopia sadly does not displace it, but is very close.

Both the HE-6 and Utopia have a rise in the 1-2kHz region so they both have a forwardness to vocals and instruments that engages the listener, but it’s not so much that it becomes fatiguing. The biggest differences are in timbre. The HE-6 has this sort of plasticky timbre that sounds hollow and decays too quickly. This is most obvious with female vocals. Going back to “Cuckoo Clock,” I can tell that the tone of the vocals sounds slightly artificial compared to the Utopia. The midrange of the Utopia, even considering the odd resonance, sounds a bit more realistic than the HE-6.

The treble is somewhat of a tossup, as both the HE-6 and Utopia are uneven and have similar peaks. The Utopia has a little more air at the top end than the HE-6, which makes it sound more “open” than the HE-6 and while they do have peaks in similar areas, the HE-6 always sounded harsher as the amplitude of these peaks sounds higher, most notably in the mid-treble around 9kHz.

Bass is the biggest surprise when comparing the HE-6 and Utopia. I love the HE-6’s bass. It has been my reference for headphone bass since owning a pair in 2015, but the Utopia actually gives it a run for its money, which I never thought was possible for a dynamic headphone. The HE-6’s bass is special. It, like most planar magnetic headphones, is linear to 1kHz so those wanting a mid-bass boost will be disappointed. But give it enough power—even a Schiit Audio Magni or something else in that range is good enough for most of the experience—and the HE-6 rumbles. When I owned a pair, I went a bit overboard and ran it out of a Great American Sound Son of Ampzilla, which is a speaker amp that was rated at 160W at 4ohms (~12.8W into 50ohms assuming the amp is linear, which it probably wasn’t). It was way more power than I ever needed, but I loved it. It was addictive; the bass seemed bottomless and at times shook my ears and made my vision blur briefly. Nothing I’d ever used displaced it, be it the JVC Victor DX1000, Sony Z1R, TakeT H2+, Fostex TH900 (though that was close) stock or modded, Audeze LCD-2, LCD-3, or ZMF Eikon (also close). 

But the Utopia is closer at displacing the HE-6 than any other headphone I’ve ever heard. I’ve been following the Utopia since it came out and noticed many people think the Utopia is too thin, which I do understand. Even the HD800 has more thickness and sounds “fuller” so going from almost any other dynamic headphone to the Utopia is going to take some adjustment, but when given that time, the Utopia shows its strength. The Utopia’s low end distortion isn’t quite as low as the HE-6’s and thus sounds slightly less clean there than the HE-6, but the HE-6’s decay has always sounded unnaturally fast at times—the Utopia’s slower decay sounds more natural to me. The Utopia also extends almost as far as the HE-6, leading to a similar sense of rumbling and vision blurring, to a lesser degree, but more than the HD800.

This comparison surprised me. The HE-6 is still my favorite headphone for my preferences and what I’m looking for in a music listening experience, despite its flaws, but the Utopia comes frighteningly close, losing out only because the Utopia’s midrange. While the Utopia has a more natural tone, it consistently sounded more off to me when I compared them back to back. I put midrange tone above all other aspects and while both have their issues, the HE-6’s plasticky tone bothered me less after an extended period of time than the Utopia’s resonance.

Considering the HE-6’s bass presentation is more satisfying and the treble is smooth enough that the peak isn’t too bothersome, it still slightly edges it out the Utopia due to its more engaging sound. However, the Utopia is more technically impressive than the HE-6. The Utopia’s decay is much more realistic and ultimately more resolving of low level details, with better spatial placement than the vaguer-sounding HE-6. It’s in these less immediately obvious traits that the Utopia pulls away from the HE-6.

Conclusion

At $4,000, the Focal Utopia is incredibly hard to call it a “reasonable” purchase by any means, but it backs up its high price. While technically, it would be cheaper to buy a used HE-6 and a new HD800 and an amp and DAC for them for less than just a new Utopia by itself, I get the appeal to it. It simply sounds complete. It’s hard to criticize it, for the most part. It has incredible bass; an engaging, mostly natural-sounding midrange; and relatively non-fatiguing treble. It works out of any source I tried it with. It’s quite comfortable to use for hours. It’s the whole package. I can understand someone buying the Utopia if they live in an apartment with limited and don’t have the ability to use speakers often, but want fantastic sound and don’t want to fuss with building the perfect HD800 or HE-6 system. If I could only have one headphone to serve every use, I would pick the Utopia. The HD800 does tick more boxes for me and overall I prefer it, but I think I prefer the HD800 because I have a multitude of other headphones or speakers to use when the distant sound gets tiring, which often happens. $4,000 is a ridiculous amount of money for a headphone; that is undeniable. But for those who have the means for it and only want one headphone, the Utopia may actually be worth that price. The Utopia is so easy to simply put on and get lost in the music that in the end, you just aren’t paying for a headphone, you’re paying to relive your favorite music in one of the most convenient ways possible.

-Kyle Dionela (@Ishcabible)

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