Focal Utopia Impressions
Chain: M1 Mac Air > Audirvana > iFi Micro BL
Unit on loan for review courtesy of Headphones.com.
In the interest of transparency, I neither have listened to a full-size headphone in a couple months, nor do I have any meaningful points of reference on hand for A/B. Yes, clearly, I’m a major fan of headphones /s. That said, spiteful headphone contrarian that I am, I’ll try my hand at sharing what I think about this legendary headphone. The Utopia was released in 2016, taking the hobby by a storm with not just its pricing, but with what was - at the time - basically an unestablished brand releasing a summit-fi product. Perhaps even more surprising, then, was the legendary reputation that the Utopia has garnered since then. As a newcomer to the hobby, I can think of few headphones that have been mentioned with higher regard, and subsequently captured my interest more, than the Utopia. I suppose the question at hand now is whether it actually lives up to those praises. Based upon a fleeting listening session at CanJam SoCal 2021, I think the answer is mostly a “yes”, but let’s take a closer look now that I have the Utopia in my hands for extended listening.
The bass response of the Utopia is characteristic of most high-end, open-back headphones: it’s fairly flat down till around ~50Hz, at which point it exhibits some sag. Despite measurements I’ve seen online, it does sound like there’s some hints of distortion wherein quick, successive bass hits can come across a tad blurred; in any case, the Utopia’s a ways off the level of control I’ve heard exhibited by some top-tier planar transducers. Likewise, for a sense of air being pushed, the Utopia is clearly eclipsed by bio-dynamic transducers such as the marvel PhilPhone. What am I getting at? In essence, the Utopia’s bass response is one that is fundamentally good in that it maintains desirable dynamic driver characteristics - specifically bass texture - but by no means do I find myself gushing over it.
To me, the midrange of the Utopia has an unusual appeal that comes from a very specific type of coloration. It’s worth noting, however, that the Utopia generally shares the same midrange characteristics as the Focal Clear. Those who have read my review on the Clear will know that I found its midrange to have some… oddities . This was mainly due to 1) a strong emphasis at 1.5kHz and 2) high contrast between ~4kHz and a 6kHz peak which resulted in sibilance. The best way I can describe it, then, is that the Utopia simply approaches these colorations with more finesse. The emphasis at 1.5kHz serves to push forward vocals for a more exciting, warm, deep presentation at the risk of some added honkiness. The upper-midrange of the Utopia is also neutral with a fairly smooth transition into the lower-treble (unlike the Clear), so there’s rarely, if ever, sibilance. The Utopia doesn’t have a perfect midrange - hell, I’ve heard maybe one headphone (the Sennheiser HE1) with my “ideal” midrange - but it’s certainly serviceable and ahead of 90% of headphones I’ve heard.
Still, there’ll be much less mercy for creative liberties in the Utopia’s treble response which, personally, I find is mostly just acceptable for a flagship-level headphone. Listening to music (so no sine sweeps), I hear what sounds like a minor emphasis at 6kHz, some recession in the mid-treble, a minor peak at around ~12kHz, and then a gentle droop off of ~15kHz. Similar to the Clear, I do think the Utopia would benefit from some more shimmer up-top; it’s just not a particularly airy headphone despite some claims I’ve read to the contrary. In fact, there are IEMs (for example, the 64A U12t and Symphonium Helios) with superior treble extension! But if the Utopia redeems itself in any regard here, it’s mostly because it sounds noticeably less compressed for micro-contrast, more fluid for gradations in treble volume than the aforementioned IEMs. The timbre of the Utopia’s treble response is also not as bad as I’ve seen in some reports; personally, I find it to be noticeably less metallic than the Focal Clear’s.
Overall, the tonality of the Utopia is good but not mind-blowing. It has its quirks, and I suspect that some are partially inherent to the Utopia’s dynamic driver topology. One also has to consider the trade-off between tonal balance and perceived technicalities. Excessive dampening to achieve a desired frequency response can often negatively affect a sense of fidelity. Thankfully, this is anything but the case on the Utopia. A quality that stands out almost immediately when one hears the Utopia is its excellent macro-contrast. It is very revealing of dynamically compressed music, meaning that - unfortunately for me - a lot of my usual listening discography doesn’t necessarily yield the best experience with the Utopia. Even on Younha’s “How U Doing”, though, I observe the subtle shift in volume at 0:48 as her voice and the volume of the plucks in the side-channels rises. On less dynamically compressed music, I also find myself raising the volume to nerve-wracking volumes that I would otherwise never touch on other headphones. This is the good stuff. The stuff that makes music sound alive and that, hand-in-hand with the Utopia’s ~1.5kHz emphasis, results in what I would describe as a true sense of ‘musicality’.
Transients on the Utopia are interesting. While they generally come across as fairly “rigid” in terms of structure and the sense of weight behind them, I feel leading edges could use more sharpness to them. For example, I recall some flagship planars I’ve heard (the HiFiMAN Susvara), and especially electrostatics (Stax L700 MK2), having better clarity than the Utopia. I think this also bears some mention of ‘slam’. The perception of ‘slam’ for me is mostly a combination of cleanly delineated attack transients and the sense of immediacy behind them. For these reasons, I’m not sure if I’m 100% onboard with the Utopia being the king of slam. Furthermore, its open-back nature prevents it from hitting adequate SPL in the sub-bass to create a more traditional perception of air being pushed. But for a sense of innate detail, there’s no question that the Utopia is a top-performer. It has wonderful reproduction of reverb trails and note texture. I do feel that some of this perception of detail is aided by frequency response. There’s added resonance somewhere in the Utopia’s treble that brings forward sonic minutiae that would otherwise be obscured on a more neutral treble response. One could argue it’s not quite natural - I’d agree - but I don’t find myself minding.
The most glaring weakness of the Utopia would actually be its staging. At best, it’s a hair larger than the Focal Clear’s stage from memory (which, by the way, is not a high bar). I’m also not even surprised that the Utopia still lacks center image diffusion - soundstage depth - like all headphones I’ve heard. However, upon closer listening, I do feel that the Utopia’s general layering chops are excellent despite the more boxy, forward presentation. It maintains respectable nuance between instruments panned in the same direction, and I find it relatively easy to discern where individual instruments are placed even in busier tracks.
So what’s the bottom line? At the end of the day, the Utopia has a number of minor issues that make me want to say “I’ve heard better”. And I have. There are headphones that eclipse it in one aspect of sound or another, some by small margins, other by more significant margins. But as a total package - as that single headphone in a collection - your options are a whole lot more limited at ~$4K. The Empyrean Elite can’t touch this. The DCA Stealth can’t touch this. The Audeze LCD-4 and LCD-5 can’t touch this (at least not without EQ). Hell, until you’re in Susvara territory at $6K, I can’t think of another headphone I’ve heard that goes toe-to-toe with the Utopia. The Utopia is indicative to me of the summit of what is possible with a dynamic driver headphone, and I think there is a strong argument for the Utopia remaining one of the best headphones on the market today.