Thank you very much for this. Any suggestions for a balanced cable for the Utopia? I’m afraid I am quite a novice with respect to headphone and your advice is greatly appreciated.
Thank you very much for this. Any suggestions for a balanced cable for the Utopia? I’m afraid I am quite a novice with respect to headphone and your advice is greatly appreciated.
It’s hard to make specific suggestions for such a cable.
The stuff I have direct experience with ranges from expensive to insane, in terms of prices, and oddly the ones I liked best (and that I thought looked the prettiest and were the most nicely constructed) were the “cheapest” ones. But in this case “cheapest” was still >$600.
And the cheaper stuff I’ve not tried.
Very plain-looking, but functional, cables can be had from Moon Audio. They can build pretty much anything you need, including adapters. I’m not a fan of their appearance, or the way the cable feels, but they do a good job and will stand behind what they build.
Bear in mind you’re going to pay about an $80-100 premium over the normal prices of most cables just to get official LEMO connectors (which is what the Utopia use), so don’t let that throw you off ($80 would be at cost for those connectors).
Probably the best-best from the boutique builders are Norne Audio. They’re the least expensive of the “big boys”, but beautifully made, aesthetically gorgeous, with first-rate materials/connectors and lots of sensible options. Though you’ll wait anywhere from 4-12 weeks to get your cable.
The sky is the limit from there.
You can also have someone re-terminate (and shorten if you want) the stock Utopia cable for 4-pin XLR and then use adapters from there to get to the 2.5mm TRRS connection for the QP2R.
I run into cable issues so much that I designed my own line of modular cables. And generally I think DIY is the most effective way to go here if you can.
Thanks for all your help. I have a limited budget of about $800. Does it make sense to first buy a headphone amp before getting the cables? I’m wondering if this would give me more bang for the buck.
If you’re using the QP2R as the source, then I would NOT add an external amplifier to drive the Utopia. Doing so will defeat one of the major selling points of the QP2R - which is its current-mode amplification (unless you go with another Questyle or a Bakoon amplifier).
Besides which, you shouldn’t need the extra power (QP2R can push the Utopia to 120 dB). I would just turn on “High Bias” and “High Gain” for now, and then hunt about for a suitable balanced cable for the Utopia*.
If you are using other sources or more demanding headphones, then an amplifier may be useful. I’d have to know what configurations (sources, headphones and amps) are involved to say anything more specific.
And if you’re using the QP2R both as a portable and as a desktop USB/DAC then it might be worth looking at getting the dock for the QP2R and using the output on that to feed an external amplifier - as that will yield much better results than trying to take the 2.5mm or 3.5mm outputs from the QP2R and driving an amplifier directly from those.
(*I can’t speak to their quality, but it seems you can get a 2.5mm TRRS balanced to Utopia cable from various vendors, including on eBay for as little as $120 or so).
Thanks once more. I guess I’ll just look at the balanced cables in that case and forget about the Amp. I’m just using the QP2R and the Utopias. I have contacted Norne Audio as you recommended and am waiting for their reply.
All the best,
I recently auditioned at my dealer the following DAC-amps with the Utopia, during 2h1/2:
Questyle Twelve Master, Chord Dave, Benchmark DAC3, Chord M-Scaler -> Dave and Focal Arche.
The Utopia’s was the dealer’s demo version, but because he no longer had the same cable as mine,
I brought my own Utopia cable, Nordost Heimdahl 2, to which I am used. I only had forgotten to take the XLR-4 --> 6.35 mm adapter,
so the dealer borrowed the adapter which comes with the Hifiman HE6se for those devices having no headphone XLR connector…
At home, I listen to the Utopia with my RME ADI-2 Pro DAC-amp,
in full dual mono (2 x AK4490 DAC chips, one for the L, one for the R channel) 2 x 6,35 mm jacks --> XLR,
and with upsampling at 192 kHz with the RME driver on my PC (higher upscaling rates are possible but require using the NOS setting on the RME, I haven’t tried NOS at high upscaling rates, I should try once, I normally use filters).
My test tracks are metal and some polyphony.
The metal tracks are much louder than the polyphonic ones, so I have to change volume and there is not much point for me with level matching.
Anyway I always try to listen as low as possible relatively to the ambient background noise (lower in my study at home than at the dealer; he says that he knows nobody listening as low as I do), so I am very sensitive to the noise floor produced by DACs, amps or headphones.
I was lucky being the only client in the store on Saturday morning.
I am not seeking audiophile enjoyment in the sense of euphonics, but only hi-fi (fidelity, realism, neutrality; no distortion or artefacts how pleasant these may be).
I am giving my impressions in the auditioning order (I didn’t have enough time to switch back and forth), because the one audition was relative to the previous one.
Questyle CMA Twelve Master (XLR connection)
This unit was new, with only 50 hours burn-in.
With its gain setting I could not adjust to a proper volume (zero sound or already too loud), which is still unusual for me. This tells me this unit is for people who listen very loudly or want to drive headphones requiring a lot of amplification. The dealer had to change several jumpers at the bottom of the unit to set a low gain, and even there volume adjustment was not ideal for me.
This unit really changed a lot the sound of the Utopia, like I had never experienced before: dark, full and lush, and yet overemphasized hi-hats (e.g. in Manowar’s Call To Arms track from the album Warriors of the World) and more relaxed. It reminded me of how the sound of the HD 800 was changed in a lush, audiophile manner (compared to my HD 800 at home) when listening to it driven by a Questyle DAP at a headphone event several years ago). For some people looking for such an audiophile pleasure this may be a great unit, but not for me. To me this was obtained at the cost of a loss of neutrality, resolution and noise floor, away from hi-fi. Even this lush sound, how pleasant it may be, didn’t feel like an “authentic” reproduction to me.
So I didn’t spend too much time with this unit, it is not what I am looking for.
Chord Dave alone (for combination with M-scaler see below)
The dealer’s Dave is always on and ready. Listening just after dark, colored and lush sounding Questyle unit, the “audio processing modules in my brain” were offset and experienced by contrast the Dave as bright, dull, weak and thin, quite unlike in my memories (I auditioned the Dave several times in the past years, incl. with other headphones than the Utopia, it sounded heavenly with the Utopia and didn’t use to sound like this), I needed to take some distance from the audition of the Questyle to readjust my audio judgement and anyway what I was interested in today was the combination M-Scaler --> Dave, and secondly the DAC3.
This is the first time ever I listened to a device by Benchmark.
The dealer had to take some time to prepare it (he had i.a. to unscrew and open the housing to change the gain setting to low).
It sounded very neutral, very resolved, very clean, very fast. To my surprise, it actually sounded even better than my RME ADI-2 Pro!
(so far the Dave was the only device I had found to sound better than my RME – I never auditioned the Hugo TT2).
It is more expensive (but not too much, not like a Dave) than my RME,
but compared to my RME with its color display, screens, menus and countless settings, the interface looked so limited, almost “prehistoric” (there wasn’t even a L-R balance). Independently from the price, even if I get a little sonic improvement with the DAC3, would that be worth it in view of losing the possibility of setting about everything as I can with my RME?
Chord M-Scaler -> Dave
This blew all my past experiences re. resolution, separation, yet without any harshness or fatigue, the jump was obvious.
It seemed so clearly to be the best of the best that I just don’t have more to say…
Negative side is of course the huge price (a thorny issue with my wife…) and that, in addition to the unpractical (not stackable) housing of the Dave, another device is required.
[edit: re. this combination, I forgot to say that each time I changed to another track, I curiously heard a “click” sound. The dealer changed some delay setting in his streaming system, but that only shifted the click from the right channel to the left one. Strange. ]
Focal Arche (XLR connection)
This unit was brand new with zero burn-in.
I hadn’t much time left, so I could only gather quick impressions. Even though I auditioned it after the M-Scaler --> Dave combination,
it still felt excellent with the default setting (no headphone preset), I mean I would put in the league of professional hifi with RME or Benchmark (although I would doubt that, had I had more time to test it, I would have found it to be as good as those?), I mean it seemed to me that someone purchasing it would not make any mistake.
The dealer managed to find out how to select the Utopia setting, I tested this a bit, but this was very short and I was getting tired from those intense, focussed auditions, I did not manage to notice a difference between the default and the Utopia settings.
That was it.
Hoping that this may be of interest to you, even if you listen at much louder volume levels than me,
all the best,
I found this a great read. Thanks.
Thanks to The Headphone Community (forum.headphones.com) I was able to borrow and audition a Focal Utopia as part of the Community Preview program. I truly enjoyed my time with Utopia and was sad to return it.
About me: I’ve been in this hobby for a while now and I have at least auditioned most mid-fi and TOTL headphones and own quite a few too. I don’t have a preference for any specific sound signature or have any sensitivities to particular frequency ranges. However, I do prefer dynamic headphones over planars, estats, or IEMs (though I own all of those too). I listen to a broad range of music and I tend to own many headphones that specialize in certain things to fit my preferences rather than go for single all rounder headphones that don’t stand out in anything. Of the current headphones I own, my favorites are (in no particular order) HD800 (SDR modded), Auteur, Atticus, Stax SR404, HE-500, and HD6XX.
Build: Utopia is simply a beautiful headphone and feels as premium as it looks. It is constructed out of metal and has some heft to it. Nothing about it feels cheap. All the accents and detail around the cups are nicely finished and the black and chrome colorway is classy and what you expect from a $4k headphone. The biggest complaint I have regarding build is the atrocious stock cable. Focal chose to use vacuum cord type of cable which is heavy, kinks, and is way too long. It is honestly one of the worst stock cables I have seen in a headphone at any price point. Focal also does not include a balanced cable for Utopia, which I know was sort of a slap in the face when Clear and Elex both released with both single ended and balanced cables included. And related to the cable is the connectors Focal uses on Utopia. These are Lemo connectors and just not very popular in headphones. I don’t even know if I have seen another headphone use these types of connectors before. That makes getting aftermarket cables difficult and/or quite expensive. I believe a Utopia owner once asked Focal for a replacement Utopia cable and the quote was something like $1,100. Meanwhile, Elear/Elex/Clear all use really simple 3.5mm connectors which are plentiful and cheap. And the way those slide into the cutouts Focal uses makes them plenty robust and stable. I really wish Utopia would have used those same connectors.
Comfort: I find Utopia to be quite comfortable. Because it is metal is it definitely heavy, but the cups are more sleek compared to other headphones like Audeze LCDs and ZMF dynamics. I think this helps distribute the weight and the headband is really plush and soft and goes all the way across the top. For whatever reason, Elear/Elex/Clear headband is similar, but at the same time I always develop hot spots on the top of my head from those. I don’t have this issue with Utopia. I can wear it for extended sessions and even though I notice the weight I don’t find it difficult to adjust to.
Source gear: RME ADI-2 DAC -> SPL Phonitor XE -> Utopia. I use a mix of FLAC and Spotify premium streaming for testing. My music preferences are broad and I try to incorporate a bit of everything, but currently I listen to mostly indie pop/rock (e.g. The Paper Kites, The Japanese House, Beach House, Glass Animals, Rhye, Radiohead, My Morning Jacket, Tame Impala, Daft Punk), acoustic folk/blues (e.g. Bon Iver, Lake Street Dive, Ray LaMontagne, Ben Howard, James Vincent McMorrow, Shakey Graves), and blues/jazz/R&B rock (e.g. John Mayer trio, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Tom Misch, Gary Clark Jr, Devon Gilfillian). See footnotes for a sample of songs I use in my testing playlist.
Bass: Utopia is sometimes described as being a tad bass-light, particularly to fans of Elear/Clear. While I tend to agree, I do actually think it is pretty neutral. I just prefer a little more bass presence to really get that slam1 that Elear/Clear get. Regardless, the quality of bass is outstanding. It is well textured, fast, controlled, and visceral. It has a strong punch without being overbearing or muddy. The bass is also well extended and the sub-bass rumble and weight is not lacking at all. Utopia can hang with planars in this category. Utopia was one of the first dynamic headphones I heard that changed my impressions of what dynamic bass was capable of. I previously thought I would always have to have planars around for that special kind of bass quality, but Utopia taught me otherwise.
Mids: The mids are exceptionally clear and forward. Transients2 are snappy and super clean. This headphone can resolve instruments superbly. Though Utopia isn’t a particularly warm3 headphone, it isn’t clinical either. It is nicely balanced and reminds me a lot of Elex or Elear+Elex pads in the way it presents mids. I do think Utopia is more resolving and even more clear than the cheaper siblings. There is a little bit of extra energy in the upper mids that can sometimes make female vocals just a bit strained, but not shouty or unpleasant. This also gives Utopia a more aggressive presentation and contributes to the forward and present nature of the sound. This is in contrast to Elear’s upper mids4, and even HD800, which are more recessed in this region. This “take no prisoners” sound is very engaging and feels like you are sitting front row in a rock concert, whereas HD800 is so spacious and wide that it feels like you are sitting balcony. Macrodynamics5 are outstanding and probably best in class.
My only complaint with Utopia (and all Focals) is that can feel slightly off in timbre, some people call it “metallic”, but I believe it is a side effect of the speed and crispness of its transient response characteristics. It can sort of be hard to pinpoint and I think people that play instruments or listen to more classical/jazz types of genres will notice it more. I don’t have any issues with timbre when listening to pop, electronic, rock, etc.
Treble: Treble is very nicely balanced, maybe just a bit bright. I personally like brighter headphones like HD800 and DT1990, but Utopia is more smooth in treble than those without any really nasty peaks. It does have a lot of energy in the 5-6 kHz region, but because it isn’t recessed in the upper mids (3-5 kHz) like HD800 it doesn’t feel nearly as sharp. However, it could still be a little fatiguing for more treble sensitive users. Also, Utopia is more sensitive to source gear than most headphones, including its cheaper siblings so paired with a brighter source setup and treble could start to become a bit overwhelming. But with a really clean setup like RME ADI-2 DAC -> SPL Phonitor XE the treble remains well behaved and crisp. There is a really nice air and sizzle that helps add layering and separation. This is probably the most ideal treble presentation for my preferences.
Staging: The staging of Utopia is quite unique. It isn’t a wide sounding headphone at all. In fact, because it is so forward in the presence region everything sounds close and in your face. But even though the stage isn’t particularly wide, it is very 3D and has more depth and height then most headphones. Whereas HD600/650 also have smaller stages, they can’t present stage like Utopia and instead feel more 3 blob (left, center, right). Because of the speed, air, and clarity of Utopia, imaging is excellent and instruments are well resolved and clear. However, I would say that in some really complex passages with lots of instruments Utopia can sometimes just feel a bit congested because of how close the stage is. It doesn’t “breathe” as well as HD800 in that respect. It isn’t problematic, but that’s the one area Utopia falls short.
Overall thoughts: I really love Utopia. I have heard it a number of times since it came out in meets, stores, and now a full in-home audition. Every time I hear it I recognize its greatness and love what it does. In terms of pure sound performance, it is up there with the best of them. I think it hangs with all the other TOTLs I have heard like Stax 009S, Abyss Phi, Audeze LCD-4, Hifiman Susvara, Sennheiser HD800(S), Audio Technica ADX5000, and ZMF Verite. In fact, I would tend to argue it is one of the best all rounders in the group. I mostly chose not to own it because of the price, resale value, and fear of out-of-warranty repairs. In terms of sound, my only minor complaint is that like all Focals, they are almost so fast and dynamic that they can have an overly sharp edge that feels a bit unnatural. While I love Focals with pop and electronic music I tend to prefer Sennheisers or ZMFs for more natural instrument based genres. Even then I still feel Utopia is an incredible headphone that pretty much everyone would love. I also think Utopia excels in clarity and openness that is immediately apparent. That is one of the first things people tend to note. Utopia is truly a special headphone.
Focal Elex: Even though Elex isn’t competing against Utopia, I figured I would compare it since they share the same house sound. Basically, I think Focal Elex is like a baby Utopia. It presents very similarly with a mostly neutral sound, punchy dynamics, visceral feel, and super fast transient response. I think Utopia is just more resolving of microdetails and is even a little more forward (particularly in upper mids and presence region) and aggressive. So if you like Elex’s sound and just want “more and better” then Utopia is a great way to go.
Sennheiser HD800: HD800 has long been in my collection and an all-time favorite. I think HD800 and Utopia are good complements to each other as they really are opposite in what they bring. Whereas Utopia is very forward, aggressive, hard hitting, and shoving detail down your throat, HD800 is smooth, wide, and more natural. I think HD800 lends itself to genres that make use of the stage like orchestra, classical, OSTs, jazz, etc. Utopia really shines with jam out music like rock, pop, electronic, hip hop, etc. Utopia does a better job of balancing mid presence and treble brightness than HD800 which can be a little more cohesive and easier to listen to. I think with HD800 you really need to either SDR mod it, EQ it, and/or cater your source gear around it to really get the ideal sound you want from it. Once you do that, I think HD800 is right there in terms of technical abilities, detail retrieval, and cohesiveness as Utopia. But again, they just achieve these things with very different presentations.
ZMF Auteur: Auteur and Utopia are also good complements to each other. Auteur is sort of a cross between HD650 and HD800 in that it is warm, smooth, laid back, and focusing on a controlled, natural sound. Auteur isn’t as microdetailed oriented as Utopia or HD800, but it has better timbre than both and is also less fatiguing than both. I think Auteur plays better to natural instrument genres like acoustic, folk, blues, and more vocal heavy stuff. It won’t slap you across the face or impress you with crazy detail like Utopia does. Rather, it is the type of headphone you use when you want to sit back and engage emotionally with music.
Stax SR404: While I only have my own Stax SR404 on hand for direct comparison, these notes are more general and pretty much apply to how I feel about all Stax (Lambdas and Omegas) vs Utopia. Electrostats to me are both similar and completely different than Utopia. They are similar in that they are both super fast and super resolving of every little detail. They are also both really clean and clear sounding. The main difference is that Stax does this in a very lightweight, nimble, polite, and soft way. Utopia does this in a powerful, aggressive, and forceful way. But that is what gives Stax the infamous “ethereal” characteristic. It is that fast, but soft nature that is so unique and interesting. Utopia sounds like a traditional headphone on steroids. It feels amped up (pun intended) and just bigger, faster, and more powerful than the average headphone.
ZMF Verite: After being so familiar with Utopia and the speed of its beryllium drivers I didn’t think any other dynamic would match it. And even though I always felt Utopia’s timbre was a little unnatural, I chalked that up to just being a tradeoff for how incisive and dynamic it sounded. And then I heard Verite and that flipped the script. Somehow Verite managed that same dynamism and speed, but also maintained the ability to sound natural in the way the ZMF house sound brings. I would say Utopia is closer to neutral than Verite, but I just prefer the sound signature of Verite more. It has more bass presence, richer mids, and slightly pulled back highs. Some people say Verite is “dark” because of that, but to me it just sounds “right”, whereas HD800 and Utopia to me sound “bright”. Utopia may slightly edge out Verite in microdetail, probably because of the more forward presence and treble regions, but I don’t really find Verite to be less resolving overall. Utopia and Verite feel pretty matched to me in terms of technical abilities. Utopia though wins out in absolute clarity and feels more open sounding. While there is an argument for owning both, I think these two are more competing against each other rather than complementing each other as many of the other comparisons are. The choice between the two is really just about preference.
Bass rumble, different from slam: “Slam” is interpreted differently for everyone, but I mean that hard hitting, physical punch you get, mostly from mid-bass (>60 Hz). I differentiate this from sub-bass (<60 Hz) “rumble”, “weight”, or “heft”. That to me is more that heavy, intense feeling and not like a slap in the face hit. For example, to me, LCD2C has sub-bass weight, but lacks slam.
A good example of this type of slam is found in SAFIA - “Fake it Til the Sunrise”. Those electronic bass hits are super punchy and visceral. You can almost feel the headphones pushing pressure against your ears.
Transient Response: This describes the attack/decay characteristics of how a driver responds to transients. So how sharp the leading edge of a music note hits (attack) and how slowly the note fades out (decay). Really sharp leading edges in transients can feel more visceral and punchy, but sometimes at the expense of causing fatigue or sounding fake. Really fast decay can sound more airy and clean, but sometimes at the expense of feeling less smooth and natural.
Warm signature: I define this as a mid-bass (60-200 Hz) bump (elevated ~100 Hz) that causes the right side of it to also be elevated as it transitions to the lower mids (~200 Hz) before leveling off. This has the effect of making vocals (particularly male) sound more warm, full, and rich.
Upper mid recession example: Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man: Dusty’s voice has a really airy sound with some reverb on it that gives it a bit of an echo. With Elear, Dusty’s voice sounds a bit flat in texture and that reverb effect is much more muted. She sounds more distant. Adele - Set Fire to the Rain is similar in Adele’s voice sounding more distant and less powerful with Elear.
Macrodynamics: This refers to the large volume swings and how quickly the sound can go from quiet to loud, or vice versa. Imagine a classical piece where there is a silent moment and then all at once the entire orchestra plays loudly in unison. As opposed to microdynamics, which refers to the small, subtle gradations in volume. This would be like in a classical piece when an instrument is soloing and just making minor adjustments to volume to create texture and not be so “monotone”.
Kamasi Washington - Truth,
Bon Iver - Holocene,
Norman Greenbaum - Spirit in the Sky,
Talking Heads - This Must be the Place,
The Piano Guys - Over the Rainbow,
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Tin Pan Alley,
Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man,
Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color,
Anderson .Paak - Am I Wrong,
Massive Attack - Angel,
Hans Zimmer - Cornfield Chase,
Foster the People - Sit Next to Me,
The Flashbulb - We, the Dispelled,
Lake Street Dive - Mistakes,
Beck - Morning,
Glass Animals - Gooey,
Fleetwood Mac - Dreams,
The Japanese House - Face Like Thunder,
Daft Punk - Giorgio by Moroder,
Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing,
Radiohead - Nude
Another superb review. I especially like your Footnotes section. Really enjoyable read. Thanks.
Awesome review. I only heard it for a week but I think my impressions line up with yours (as usual haha).
Hey yall. I had a tug the other day and the right connector just kind of popped out. I noticed the sound change before that, nothing too bad but I had sat there wondering if it always sounded like that.
I am sitting here now wondering what to do. I am not sure if I wanna go about trying to repair the cable or make a new one, or just buy a new one.
The LEMO connectors that Focal uses on the Utopia are pretty robust, so you should be able to repair it without having to buy new connectors (and if you do buy new ones, you’re probably going to be stuck with silver, as the black ones are a bugger to get).
If you have to trim and remake the connections on the damaged side you’ll probably want to do the same on the other. If it’s just a case of resoldering the wires and putting the cable back into the strain relief (it’s a chuck/collet style fixing on the LEMO connectors, so it can be re-used) you may only have to do the one side.
Good news, everyone! Well cord not broken actually. It’s just the strain relief and metal bit got pulled up revealing the excess. When I took the good connector apart it looks like that, just not exposed.
The only thing left is to try and put this LEMO connector back together…these little metal bits…
Hey Torq, do you which pins need to go into which side of the connector?
I am pretty sure I inverted a pin when I put the connector back together and now bass is weird.
I also broke one of the metal pieces in the connector, which holds it in place. It should work with the one but this is why I don’t really trust myself to do these projects.
The pin assembly (the two-piece split-insert carrier, and the plastic insert/insulator with the actual pins in it that the carrier fits around) should only be able to go in one way.
If you’ve damaged/lost one of the split-insert carrier pieces, you’re likely to have alignment/retention issues, and won’t have that one-way keying behavior …
In which case, one of those the split carriers has a hole in it that should line up with a raised mark on one side of the insulator/pin assembly, and that should be on the side of the connector that has a red dot on the outside of the shell.
If you need more information, or to order new connectors:
Data sheet for the LEMO connectors is here. The connector Focal uses information starts on page 11.
Part number is: FGG.0B.302.CLAD52 (that’ll be the chrome finish, good luck finding black) - price floats between $33 and $45 depending on availability/demand. The plastic boots are $4-$5 each.
Thank you very much. That makes sense. I managed to also turn the cable on the other connector which had no issues which has both parts.it was horizontal after I put it back together but it seems I need to realign with that in mind.
I broke the bit with the hole. Will that connector come with those little metal bits/do think they work with the Utopia cable?
The part I linked will come with the collet, shell, insulator/pins and both split-insert carrier pieces. They should be interchangeable with the parts on the connectors you have, as they only differ in color (and the internals are the same either way).
It’s the same part I use for the Utopia on the custom cables I build (2nd from the bottom):
Note that the red and black strain relief pieces shown here are optional and a different part (they won’t come with the part linked above). You should be able to re-use the Focal connectors as-is and just take the split-insert carrier pieces from the connectors I linked.
Focal Utopia Review - The King of Detail
The Focal Utopia has been out now for some time, and when it first came out there was nothing else like it. Now, in 2019, there are a lot more flagships on the market to choose from, and the Utopia is often used as a comparison for new headphones. “How does it compare to the Utopia?” is a common question among audiophiles whenever a new flagship comes out. And so in this review I’m going to ask the question of whether the Focal Utopia is still worthy of being the headphone that all other flagships are evaluated against. Is this still the king of detail in 2019?
Type - Circumaural Open-Back Headphones
Impedance - 80 Ohms
Sensitivity - 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) - < 0.2% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Weight - 490g (1.08lb)
Cable Length - 4m (13.1ft)
Connector - 6.35mm (1/4“) Neutrik® Stereo Plug
MSRP - $3999
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - iFi iDSD Micro Black Label-> Cayin IHA-6 -> Focal Utopia
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - Focal Arche DAC/Amp -> Focal Utopia
For the Utopia I’ve been using my usual collection of well-recorded jazz from Michael Wollny, GoGo Penguin, Molly Johnson and my sibilance test is Patricia Barber’s ‘Code Cool’, for anyone wanting ear pain (although I do like the music). I’ve also been getting into the new Opeth album In Cauda Venenum for heavier material, and while it’s not all that well recorded, it’s certainly the best of this current generation for the band. Additionally, I actually find Tool’s Fear Inoculum to be reasonably well engineered and mastered, in spite of the fact that there are a few occasions where the mic sounds a bit close for comfort.
Build Quality - 9.5/10
Comfort - 8.5/10
The Utopia uses the same ‘formerless’ M-shaped dome style of driver that’s used throughout many of their other headphones, however the Utopia uses solid beryllium for the drivers instead of the aluminum-magnesium employed for the lower end models. My guess is that such a light driver system with the formerless voicecoil, coupled with the stiffness and rigidity of solid beryllium confers serious technical performance benefits that traditional dynamic drivers can’t match. Ideally, a dynamic driver has a diaphragm that has high stiffness and restorative force so that it can more accurately track and react to its signal - and solid beryllium material allows the Utopia to achieve precisely that. The drivers are also angled within the cup, meaning it should alter the effects of concha resonance amplification, or in other words the sound being produced should react differently to the physical properties of the ear. There are other examples of headphones doing this these days, and of course Focal has done this with the rest of their line as well. Interestingly this also may be responsible for substantial sound differences depending on the position of the headphone on one’s head.
I’m a big fan of the formerless driver systems that Focal uses, and in my mind they all enjoy performance benefits over similarly priced biodynamics - both for detail retrieval and speed. The one concern with these drivers is that for whatever reason they may produce somewhat of a metallic or artificial sheen to the music. So I’ve approached my evaluation of the Utopia with the intent to specifically listen for that quality.
Detail Retrieval - 10/10
The Utopia is of course the headphone that all other flagships are evaluated against when it comes to detail retrieval. I can confidently say that the Utopia is nothing short of exceptional when it comes to detail, and while other flagships are now able to get to the same level of detail ability, the Utopia is clearly still the best dynamic driver headphone in that regard. I have yet to hear another headphone categorically exceed the Utopia for detail.
Speed & Dynamics - 9.8/10
Here’s where the benefits of the ultra-fast driver show up. The attack is quite strong, also possibly the strongest for a dynamic driver headphone. The Utopia sounds punchy and tight throughout the frequency response, and also has excellent dynamic slam - not quite on the same level as some flagship planars, but still incredibly engaging. Microdynamics are also nothing short of exceptional here as well.
Stage & Imaging - 8.5/10
Structural definition for the images and positional accuracy are second to none on the Utopia, however the stage is considerably smaller than on other, less expensive headphones. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, and it’s less of an issue particularly because the detail and speed are so good. Instrument separation is spectacular and every image can be pinpointed with complete surgical precision. I do wish this had a more ‘speaker-like’ presentation, but it’s a trade-off I’d be willing to make if that’s the price for the rest of the Utopia’s technical ability.
Timbre - 8/10
In general I find the Utopia a bit on the sweet side, and that’s actually my preference. There’s no ‘dry thud’ that I’m always worried about. I was also specifically listening for a slight metallic edge or sheen to the Utopia because that’s been a common concern or criticism from some listeners. If it exists, it’s not significant enough for me to confidently be able to pinpoint exactly where in the frequency response this shows up. It’s certainly less noticeable than the distinction between balanced armature and dynamic IEMS, where there is a risk of a noticeable metallic smearing effect to certain frequencies. It’s only when I compare the Utopia to my ZMF Vérité that I really start to notice a less natural timbre and even then it’s likely just the different tonality that’s responsible. My instinct is that the perception of a metallic timbre has more to do with the knowledge that Focal headphones use beryllium or aluminum-magnesium drivers than it does actually being bothered by the timbre - our experiences are often influenced by countless subconscious expectations we’re unaware of at the time.
Tonality & Frequency Response
Measurements done using the MiniDSP EARS rig, which is not to be taken as an industry standard measurement system. The following uses the HEQ compensation, which is similar to the target developed by Olive and Welti.
The following shows how the Utopia measures on the HPN compensation, which is closer to a diffuse field target.
The bottom line for tonality is that it’s almost exactly my preference, sitting carefully between Harman and diffuse field targets, and if I had to change anything about it would be to boost the sub-bass by a few dB.
Score - 9/10
Audeze LCD4 - The LCD4 is a planar flagship that in my opinion is far too heavy for regular use, however from a strictly technical performance perspective, the LCD4 is truly amazing. The Utopia is very similar in terms of detail capability, but if I had to give the edge to one over the other it would be to the LCD4 for bass detail and texture and to the Utopia for detail throughout the rest of the frequency response. It’s likely the case that the LCD4 is technically slightly superior, however its tonality obscures a lot of the detail throughout the upper midrange and lower treble. Effectively this means that the Utopia does do a better job of representing details in the mix. Moreover, the Utopia’s tonal balance is far superior to that of the LCD4, especially in the treble. The bass slams a bit harder on the LCD4 and it has a bigger stage, however I still find the Utopia to be slightly more surgical as far as its image presentation is concerned.
ZMF Vérité - The Vérité is the closest I’ve heard a dynamic driver headphone get to the Utopia. It’s detail retrieval isn’t quite on the same level as that of the Utopia and it’s also not quite on the same level when it comes to image definition/distinction, but it’s very close on all of those fronts. Where the Vérité has a clear advantage is in the soundstage. It’s a much larger and more ‘concert-like’ experience with bigger images as well. The Vérité has what I can only describe as a “controlled wall of sound” character to it that the Utopia doesn’t have. And while the Utopia does perform better on the attack (more punch, tighter), the Vérité has more intensity when there’s a lot going on in the mix. In my mind it’s a trade-off, if you want strictly the best detail, the Utopia is the better choice - but if you’re okay with ‘second best’ detail but on a bigger stage, the Vérité is likely a better choice.
Focal Clear - There are two key differences between the Utopia and the Clear. The first is that the Utopia has substantially better detail capability with the benefits of the solid beryllium driver. The second difference is that the Clear actually has what is in my opinion a more agreeable tonality with the added bass energy. Apart from that, the Clear has a slight edge to the consonant range at around 8.5khz, while the Utopia sounds a bit smoother to my ears. That again likely has to do with the superior technical performance of the Utopia. I quite like the Clear, but in my opinion the Utopia is just categorically superior, and ultimately more enjoyable.
HE1000se - This one is difficult, because while the Utopia has distinctly superior tonal balance for the treble (not as splashy above 12khz), the HEKse does also have incredible technical performance. Detail retrieval is very close between the two, but the stage and imaging for the HEKse is in a class of its own. Instrument separation is also superior on the HEKse, and that’s likely just because it’s a planar, but the overall experience is truly incredible once you EQ down some of the over-emphasized splashy quality above 12khz. With that said, the Utopia has better build quality and a more traditional design where the cups don’t protrude down your neck like they do for the HEkse. These are both incredible headphones, and I’d be happy with either, but for those who don’t want to EQ anything, the Utopia is much more realistic sounding.
Focal Arche DAC and Headphone Amp
I was able to test out the new Focal Arche amplifier with the Utopia and the closed back Elegia. The Arche uses a balanced design that features the AK4490 chip, as well as a voltage and current hybrid configuration. Focal has added a number of presets in the amp for each of their headphones, and while I initially thought this was some kind of DSP or EQ, after trying it out it’s clearly not the case. In fact, while I did hear a difference, I wasn’t able to detect any difference in the frequency response when switching between the different presets. When you select a preset, two things happen, you hear a click (almost like a relay switch), and you get a change in volume for the headphone by a few dB. It’s possible that there are other audible qualities, but nothing nearly as dramatic as applying an EQ would do. My guess is that it’s either changing the op-amp, switching between voltage and current, or applying a DAC filter (or any combination of these).
Interestingly, the most dramatic difference I found when amping the Utopia was with the 120 ohm output from my Cayin IHA-6.
While I don’t recommend using it for this (the Utopia is only an 80 ohm headphone), this resulted in a dramatic bass boost - to the point where it’s too much. But at the very least this was interesting to see, and for those who are looking at the Utopia and are concerned that it might be a bit bass light, it is possible to change the frequency response in the bass without using EQ. It’s a much more expensive way to change it, but it is doable. You just need to find an amp that has higher than 10 ohm output impedance. Personally I’d stick with the Arche, or another low output impedance source and just apply a bit of EQ - but then again the Utopia doesn’t really need EQ beyond guilty pleasure appeal the way some other headphones do.
Overall Score - 9/10
You can check out my video review here:
Please man. I have the Clear. Don’t tempt me into the Utopia!
Such a pleasant and easy read. Thanks for such an objective (even with some subjective-based analysis) and straightforward review along with useful comparisons. Keep up the great work.