Focal Utopia Review: Precogvision's Take

Focal Utopia Review: Precogvision's Take

Precogvision
12 minute read

Introduction

The Focal Utopia was released in 2016, taking the hobby by a storm with not just its staggering $4000 MSRP, but with what was - at the time - basically an unestablished brand releasing a summit-fi product. Perhaps even more surprising, then, is 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. Of course, now that I have the Utopia in my hands for extending listening, the question at hand 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 read on for a closer look. 

This Utopia unit was provided for review courtesy of Headphones.com and will be returned upon completion of the review. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability. 

Source & Drivability

All critical listening was done off of an M1 Macbook Air > Audirvana > iFi Audio Micro Black Label with lossless FLAC files. The Utopia is fairly easy to drive and I had no trouble hitting my usual listening volumes. If you'd like to learn more about my listening methodology, test tracks, and general beliefs in audio, then I would encourage you to check out this page

The Tangibles

In the box with the Utopia, you'll find the following accessories:

  • Booklet
  • XLR cable
  • 3.5mm cable
  • 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter
  • Premium rigid carry case

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

As would be expected of a flagship headphone, the Utopia utilizes premium materials like carbon fiber for the yoke. Carbon fiber is often used in high-performance cars due to its superb strength-to-weight ratio. However, it's more debatable whether this was the right material decision for a headphone given that carbon fiber is fairly rigid and prone to snapping under stress. It is certainly visually appealing at least. The pads on the Utopia are composed of lambskin leather and perforated fabric. Collectively, they are intended to bridge the gap between a 'live' room (with reverb) and a dampened, studio-treated room. They are plush and extremely comfortable; however, be aware that replacement ear pads will set you back a hefty $250! 

The Utopia is a heavier headphone, clocking in at 490g. That being said, due to the plush nature of its headband and ear pads, I find that I can listen to it for a couple hours (which is pretty much the longest I'll listen to any headphone) before taking a break. They're not quite as breathable as the Sennheiser HD800S (possibly one of the most comfortable headphones I've worn), but I imagine most listeners would not have any issues with the Utopia's comfort. Because this is an open-back headphone, do be aware that there is zero isolation. I wouldn’t purchase this headphone expecting to use it on public transportation or in louder environments. 

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

As for the included accessories, I have stated this before, but I am not a fan of the cables that Focal includes with their headphones; the Utopia bears no exception. The cables are fairly...well, janky, for lack of a better word, and I would like to have seen higher quality cables included. They look like the same cables you might find off a desktop lamp from Ikea (in this regard, I encourage you to check out some posts in the r/headphones subReddit). I do like the included carry case at least. It feels very high-quality and affords a reasonable amount of protection for its very expensive contents. 

Sound Analysis

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 (that was tongue-in-cheek). But ever the headphone contrarian that I am, I’ll try my hand at sharing what I think about this legendary headphone.

The frequency response measurement below was taken off the GRAS 43AG. The Harman combined target is an aggregate of the Harman 2013's bass and the 2018's midrange and treble. 

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

Bass

The bass response of the Utopia is characteristic of most high-end, open-back headphones: it’s fairly flat down till ~50Hz, at which point it exhibits some sag. This is not the headphone for listeners who enjoy sub-bass and are  EQ shy. Additionally, to me, it sounds like there’s some hints of distortion wherein rapid, successive hits can come across somewhat blurred, such as the drum machines on Twice's "I Can't Stop Me" (~0:26-0:36). For reference, I am not listening very loudly (given that extreme loudness is shown to dramatically increase this distortion in measurements). In any case, the Utopia’s bass is a ways off the level of control and linear extension I’ve heard exhibited by some top-tier planar transducers. The Utopia is also clearly eclipsed for a sense of air being pushed by bio-dynamic transducers such as the marvel PhilPhone. In essence, the Utopia’s bass response is one that is fundamentally good in that it maintains some desirable dynamic driver characteristics - specifically solid bass texture - but by no means do I find myself impressed by it.  

Midrange

Much to my surprise then, the midrange of the Utopia possesses an unusual magnetism to it that I can't stop talking about. However, it's worth noting that the Utopia generally shares the same midrange characteristics as the Focal Clear. This is important because those who have read my review on the Clear will know that I found its midrange to have some oddities. These oddities were predicated on 1) a strong emphasis at 1.5kHz and 2) high contrast between ~4kHz and a 6kHz peak which resulted in sibilance. That in mind, the Utopia is best described as simply approaching these colorations with more finesse. The elevation at 1.5kHz is largely maintained, so the normally subtle, transitionary guitar lick at 3:05 of Rodney Atkin's "Watching You" sounds especially vibrant and present, as do most lower-midrange oriented instruments. However, the upper-midrange of the Utopia aligns closer to neutral with a fairly smooth transition into the lower-treble (unlike the Clear), so there’s rarely ever sibilance. As far as I'm concerned? The Utopia doesn’t have a perfect midrange; heck, I’ve heard maybe one headphone (the Sennheiser HE1) with my “ideal” midrange. But the Utopia's midrange is a breath of fresh air that marries bold, colored, and - most importantly - listenable into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Treble

Nonetheless, there'll be decidedly less leniency for creative liberties in the Focal Utopia's treble response. I generally consider it to be just acceptable for a flagship-level headphone. Without the use of sine sweeps, I roughly hear a minor emphasis at 6kHz, some recession in the mid-treble, a minor peak at around ~12kHz, and then a gentle decline off of ~15kHz. Similar to the Focal Clear, I do think the Utopia would benefit from some added 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! If the Utopia redeems itself in any regard here, it’s mostly because it sounds noticeably less compressed for minuscule gradations in treble volume and it has more textured decay than the aforementioned IEMs. The timbre of the Utopia’s treble is also not as harrowing as I've read in some reports. Personally, I find it to be noticeably less metallic than the Focal Clear’s treble which was concentrated more strongly at ~11kHz from memory.

Technical Performance

The tonality of the Utopia is good but not mind-blowing in my book. It has its share of 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, as excessive dampening to achieve a desired frequency response can often negatively affect a sense of fidelity.

Thankfully, the latter does not remotely concern the Utopia. A characteristic that stands out almost immediately is its excellent macro-contrast. For those who might not be familiar with this term, think of it this way: in any given track, there are decibel peaks and valleys; their difference in amplitude is measured as dynamic range. Macro-contrast is indicative of a transducer's ability to reproduce these gradations in volume. Like so, the Utopia is extremely revealing of dynamically compressed (low DR) music. Unfortunately, this means that 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 plucks in the side-channels rise. And on less dynamically compressed music, I find myself raising the volume to levels 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 colored midrange, merits the cliche buzzword musicality to my ears.  

That said, 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 (such as the HiFiMAN Susvara), and especially electrostatics (such as the Stax L700 MK2), having better clarity than the Utopia. Perhaps this perception is purely a product of frequency response, but I think this also bears some mention of 'slam' - a coveted characteristic of sound in many circles. The perception of 'slam' for me is mostly a combination of cleanly delineated attack transients and the sense of immediacy behind them. The Utopia noticeably stumbles in the bass here, and with the midrange and the treble to a lesser degree, so I'm not sure if I'm 100% onboard with the Utopia being the often cited king of slam. It doesn't help that its open-back nature prevents it from achieving adequate SPL in the sub-bass to create a more traditional perception of air being pushed.

But that's just my opinion. On the other hand, there’s no question that the Utopia is a top-performer for internal detail. I think it would be best to think of the Utopia as the Focal Clear's detail retrieval taken ~10% further. That's high praise given that the Clear was already remarkably accomplished in this department with its excellent micro-dynamics - reverb trails, decay, and the nuance of individual instrument lines. Turning up the volume a little more than I probably should, I find myself glued to Kenny Chesney's "There Goes My Life". I can hear every subtle inflection to his voice and the supporting singer in the left channel. Minor details like the shifting, inconsistent intensity of the drums in the back from ~2:10-2:40 also really pop despite the Utopia's lack of attack sharpness in the bass. 

Interestingly, I also observed that the Utopia sports some extra resonance in the treble that brings forward sonic minutiae that would be otherwise obscured on a more neutral treble response. A good example is the opening triangles on Sawano Hiroyuki's "Cage". They seemingly have an extra layer of shimmer to the way they decay, essentially reverberating a hair longer than they should to pinch out more detail. Perhaps this effect is a product of that aforementioned ~12kHz peak. One could argue it’s not quite natural - and I'd agree - but I don’t find myself particularly minding. 

In fact, I would consider the most glaring weakness of the Utopia to be its staging. It's a hair larger than the Focal Clear’s stage (which is not a high bar) from memory at best. I also can't say I'm surprised that the Utopia still lacks center image diffusion - soundstage depth - like all headphones I’ve heard. The Utopia is not going to give you a speaker-like presentation no matter how you dice it; even within the context of headphones, its staging is fairly average. That said, 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 being placed even in busier tracks.

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

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 narrow at ~$4K. So much so that until you’re in HiFiMAN 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 as the summit of what is possible with a dynamic driver headphone, and I think there's a compelling argument for the Utopia remaining one of the best headphones on the market today. It's a prime example, in some respects, of how innovation in the headphone world progresses fairly slowly. It comes as no surprise to me why it would have shocked listeners when it was released in 2016 - and why it still continues to do so today. The Utopia has my stamp of approval if you're after a top-tier, colored, intimate presentation...and your wallet reaches that deep. 

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