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‘ONE SMALL STEP FOR HEADPHONES, A GIANT LEAP FOR MUSICKIND’

The space race for the title of “World’s Best Headphones” has become a fiery competition with lots of contenders claiming rights to that mystical moniker. It seems every few months we hear about the latest, greatest ‘best headphone ever’ rocketing into the stratosphere to plant their flag atop the biggest rock orbiting the headphone universe. Unfortunately, there’s also been a faked moon landing or two by some headphones that have long since come and gone like drifting galactic stardust.

Lunar conspiracy theories aside, the Focal Utopia is absolutely the real deal. Our headphone.com review team had the chance to spend several weeks testing the Utopia with all kinds of music and comparing it against a few other high-end cans. Needless to say, it’s been a glorious time getting up close and personal with the Utopia.

Focal Utopia HeadphoneJust to be clear from the very outset, we have not heard another headphone with this level of accuracy, smoothness, dynamism and just plain fun combined into one. Every experienced reviewer on our headphone.com staff seemed to catch a case of slack jaws and far-away eyes when they first put the Utopia on their noggin. With the Utopia, Focal has hit it so far out of the park, we're not even going to look for the ball.

The Utopia taps deeply into a wellspring of human musical emotion that’s really hard to come by in audio, no matter how much you spend. We’re not ashamed to say we got a bit teary on more than one occasion listening to the Utopia - and not just because of its eye-watering $4,000 price tag. If you want to hear a headphone with a nearly perfect tonal balance, immediately responsive dynamic speed and the most intelligent, revealing insight into the music we’ve experienced to date, the Focal Utopia beckons.

BERYLLIUM M-SHAPED DRIVERS

Focal Utopia HeadphoneThe Focal Utopia circumaural dynamic headphone is the end result and beneficiary of the high-caliber design and acoustic research facilities a cutting-edge European audio company like Focal brings to manufacturing headphones. The Utopia incorporates a whole host of performance features directly descended from Focal’s large room speakers, some of which can run up into the $200,000 mark. It’s obvious Focal spared no expense when they set out to make the Utopia truly the world’s best headphone. We think its perhaps as close to a perfect headphone as exists in today’s ever-evolving super high-end audio world.

For starters, the rare beryllium metal drivers employed by Focal in their top audiophile speakers were re-engineered from scratch to essentially function as a ‘near-field’ speaker array in the Utopia. For the Focal speaker audio engineers, their fresh design concept for the Utopia headphones was essentially to re-create miniaturized but equally high-performance versions of their famed big speakers.

Focal Utopia headphoneThe Utopia’s unique patented dome-shaped driver - called ‘M-shaped’ drivers by Focal - delivers an extremely long and perfectly linear pistonic driver excursion motion that allows for 50,000 vibrations per second compared to other high-end headphones measuring at around half that rate. That translates into an immaculate clarity of tone and timbre that distinctly defines all parts of the music with each instrument living and breathing in its own seamless individual space within the larger ensemble. Every nuance of the recording no matter how delicate or low-level seems to have a real organic weight in the overall presentation of the Focal Utopia, making it the most speaker-like and emotionally rewarding headphone listening experience ever in our headphone.com opinion.

STEAK AND LOBSTER

Stacking up the Focal Utopia against its most logical direct competitor, the Audeze LCD-4 priced at an identical $4,000, each headphone is a towering monolith of jaw-dropping sound. It’s a really difficult pick between two completely stunning but slightly different musical approaches. Both have awesome acoustic strengths and stellar musical qualities that rate at the tippy-top of the headphone world. How do you choose between filet mignon and grilled lobster?

With that salivating dichotomy in mind, the big $4,000 question becomes how does the planar magnetic Audeze LCD-4 headphone compare against the beryllium-fueled dynamic driver design of the Focal Utopia?

Audeze LCD-4 Planar Magnetic HeadphoneSafe to say its damn hard to go wrong with either, but each headphone offers its own specific signature and distinct musical philosophy. Again, at this exalted performance level its really not a question of simplistic dualities like right/wrong, good/bad or even better/worse; it merely boils down to which headphone best represents your own particular sound preferences and subjective musical tastes.

As we discussed in our original review of the Audeze LCD-4, we think it offers the best, most textural bottom-end in headphones with a deep, accurate bass extension and tight control that remains second to none. Its low-octave muscular brawn and foundational tonal heft solidly drives the music with full authority from the bass drum up with absolutely zero murk or flab. For discerning bass lovers not wanting to give up an iota of detail in the mids or highs or lose fast-trajectory dynamics, the LCD-4 remains the headphone to beat.

Focal Utopia HeadphoneBy contrast, the low-end of the Focal Utopia is perhaps more restrained but in a fully focused way. Although its not as sub-sonically extended, the bass response of the Utopia is deeply round, solidly punchy and 100% musically satisfying with all the textural detail and taut low-note accuracy you would expect from big room speakers moving much more air. It can also quite capably handle low-end EQ curves so the Focal Utopia is beautifully responsive to frequency tweaks for tone-shaping audiophiles who like to personalize their headphone soundscape with outboard EQ.

DEEP INNER SPACE

The pristine sense of deep space presented by the Focal Utopia is probably its biggest calling card. The airiness and simplicity of the imaging places each instrument, voice or production element in high relief against a vast black background that allows you to hear the most minute musical nuance in almost shocking detail. The soundstage appears nearly limitless with a deep 3-D spatiality that seems to extend way past your ears. We kept taking off the Utopia headphones during listening tests thinking our room speakers were turned on.

Focal Utopia HeadphoneIn our opinion, the Audeze LCD-4 probably tends to fall just slightly behind the Focal in resolution and coherence of the mids/highs in spots where the Focal is completely seamless with a liquid tone that never masks detail or constricts upward dynamic movement. The Utopia midranges are present, unified and rendered without etching of any sort while the highs extend free and brilliant with airy space and dimension to spare. And if you really want to hear what your audio system front end is capable of doing, the Utopia will clearly show you the impact of using various sources and even cable changes in your rig. It’s just that revealingly precise a headphone, natch.

The tipping point may well likely be the different fit and ergonomics of the two headphones. The planar magnetic wood-earcup Audeze LCD-4 is significantly larger and heavier compared to the Focal Utopia’s sleek carbon fiber frame and comparatively lighter weight. The Utopia also nicely fits smaller heads, which is basically a no-go with the oversized LCD-4. Listeners using headphones for hours on end may also gravitate to the wearing comfort of the Utopia which has a cushy on-the-ears feel that is much more pleasant for long sessions than the behemoth Audeze build.

The Best Headphone Ever?

In the end, we have heard no other headphone that is so incisive and intensely accurate but yet so luscious and emotionally engrossing.

Throwing its steep premium price out the window, we essentially could not find a deal-killing audio weakness with this headphone. Perhaps some bass heads may feel it needs a touch more low-end oomph, but we'd tend to disagree. Not only do we think the bass response is right on the money without any semblance of excessive bloat or billow, but the Utopia delivers a pure faithfulness to the recording and/or source that is unequaled in our book. So if the bass is mixed up and mastered hot, the Utopia’s increased bass response will reveal that. If the bass is muted or mixed low, the Utopia will plainly show that too. The Focal Utopia has a special access to the genuine truth of the sound that’s a rare find even in high-end headphone land.

Just like its name implies, the Utopia is heavenly nirvana for audiophile headphone enthusiasts and spare-no-expense music lovers. The only ugly downside is trying to go back to other headphones once you’ve heard the Focal Utopia. Now there’s a good reason to weep openly.

 


4 Responses

Ron White
Ron White

September 17, 2016

For a mere $300 my NAD Viso HP 50 with room feel tech would compete nicely . I hope you were listening to Hi-Rez 24/192 audio….

Nicola Alfonsi
Nicola Alfonsi

September 17, 2016

Guy, did you compared the Focal Utopia with the Abyss 1266?

John
John

September 15, 2016

Man! You`d better have a utopian size wallet to pay for this!!

Paul Chiu
Paul Chiu

September 15, 2016

Should we be concerned about the use of beryllium in the drivers? This element is known to cause cancer.

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