Focal Utopia Review - Still the best dynamic driver headphone in 2021?

Focal Utopia Review - Still the best dynamic driver headphone in 2021?

Andrew Park
10 minute read

Review Written by Chrono

Headphones provided on loan for evaluation by Headphones.com

Introduction

As a culmination of Focal’s 40 years of loudspeaker-making experience, the Utopia is a French-made headphone designed with the goal of delivering nothing short of the purest, most faithful listening experience.

The Utopia, which retails at a whopping $3,990, was the first headphone designed by Focal and it’s the one that introduced their signature, pure-Beryllium ‘M’ shape dome speaker driver, which has laid the foundation for the driver designs and variations in all of Focal’s subsequent headphones releases.

NOTE: the Utopia reviewed here is the 2020 Premium Accessories version, which retails for $4,400. Standard Utopia includes a different cable and omits the case.

Sources and Music Used in Listening Tests

The Amplifier/DACs used in this review were the SPL Phonitor XE (with built-in DAC), Grace Design SDAC + Topping A90, and the JDS Labs Element II connected via USB to my desktop computer. For the listening tests I used music from a wide variety of genres including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and latin. I played tracks from my own FLAC library as well as from Qobuz streaming service played via Roon (exclusive mode).

Focal Utopia 2020 Accessories | Headphones.com

Packaging and Accessories

The Utopia’s packaging has recently been updated and it now resembles that of the Stellia, with a slide-off top cover that’s wrapped in pleather, albeit in black to more closely match the Utopia’s aesthetic design.

I feel like I say this everytime I review a Focal product, but unfortunately, until they give me a reason to stop saying it I will note: the included cables, despite looking nice, are really, really bad. They’re extremely stiff and I find them awkward even for desktop use, so purchasing an after-market cable is highly encouraged.

Build and Comfort

As is to be expected from a Focal headphone, the Utopia’s build is simply fantastic.

Its design is a blend of outstanding material work and craftsmanship, with the result being a headphone that feels and looks the part. Unless you take into account the cables, there is no component of this headphone’s build that I can flaw; it’s remarkably well put-together and it looks gorgeous with its sporty but elegant look.

For comfort, the Utopia isn’t the greatest I’ve tried, but I’d still say that it’s a pretty easy wear. Its 490g is definitely a little on the heavier side, but I find that the headband, the pads, and clamp force help in evenly distributing the weight, making it an unlikely source of fatigue. That being said, though, the inner area of the pads makes for a snug fit and I do occasionally feel my ears touching the inner sides of the pads, which could be discomforting for some users. Still, I had no issues wearing the Utopia for several-hours-long listening sessions.

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

Sound

The Utopia, which was the first headphone released by Focal, immediately rose to prominence for its noteworthy performance. Since its introduction, the sonic experience it delivers has been met with great acclaim, with many listeners going as far as calling it the world’s best headphone.

First Impressions

Upon my first listen, the Utopia stunned me with its clear, deep, and musical presentation. Its enjoyable tonality is one that I think leans towards being neutral-warm with a linear bass response, present mids and well-tempered, airy highs. It was also distinctly fast and energetic in its presentation, with outstanding low-end control and snappy transients. There were, however, some frequency-response-related quirks that stood out to me, which affected the headphone’s timbre, and I will be discussing those briefly.

Bass

The Utopia’s bass response is tight, and it has an exceptional ability for texturing low tones. For extension, it has an almost perfectly linear response down to 20hz with little to no roll-off that I could hear, which lends the bass region a great sense of depth and allows it to surface the rumble of the lowest sub bass frequencies. The one comment I would make about the Utopia’s bass is that, for my tastes and preferences, it’s a little lean under 115hz and I think that it could benefit from either an EQ bass upshelf or from an analog bass boost if you’re using an amp that has one available. Nonetheless, the bass response here is fantastic; it’s remarkably nimble, it’s deep and it’s honestly the most detailed bass I’ve heard on a dynamic driver headphone.

Mids

The midrange on the Utopia is where the headphone can be a little interesting. In the lower midrange, from 300hz-1000hz, it has an even response that adequately reproduces fundamental tones and gives instruments a rich body. Then at around 1500hz, though, the Utopia has a fairly significant bump of roughly 4dB.

I’ve heard a similar peak in that region on almost all the Focal headphones I’ve tried, but it felt particularly more pronounced on the Utopia and it made the midrange come through with a little bit of a stuffy timbre for me. Listening to vocal tracks, they had the tendency to sound slightly nasally and when I listened to–for example–instrumental classical guitar pieces I found that they could sound a bit boxier than I expected. Mind you, this was extremely subtle, but for listeners who are sensitive to tonal and timbral changes, this is definitely worth noting.

One last thing I noticed was that 3K was ever so slightly forward. It didn’t make the upper midrange come through as harsh, but it could occasionally sound just a little “shouty.”

Highs

In the treble region, the Utopia is pretty smooth, and its balance leans a little towards the warmer side. Nonetheless, it’s got ample energy between 8K-10K, which nuances instrument and vocal overtones whilst also adding a satisfying bite to the strikes of percussive instruments. Additionally, the Utopia has some nice extension into the upper treble region, lending it some nice air qualities above 10K. The only deviation I heard in this region, really, was a small peak at 6K, which introduced some minor glare and the slightest bit of low treble sibilance. Overall, though, the treble here was very nicely tonally defined, it never became fatiguing, and it had well-presented overtones and harmonics.

Resolution

Detail retrieval and overall sense of Clarity is, undoubtedly, where the Utopia shines brightest. In all registers of the frequency response the Utopia is transparent, stable and truly exceptional when it comes to texturing instrument and vocal tones. The musical image that the Utopia paints is a pristine and realistic one that allows you to simply get lost in the music. In this regard, the Utopia is the best performer I’ve listened to thus far, and it eclipses the performance of my HD 800S and Vérité Closed by a surprising margin.

Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering

The Utopia’s spatial presentation is very intimate, but it has great depth and directional accuracy. Its soundstage is definitely one that I’d say feels very forward, not unlike that of the Focal Clear or the Sennheiser HD 600-series headphones. The Utopia’s imaging, though, is immaculate, and it perfectly traces the location from which sound originates; a quality which enhances the headphone’s ability to replicate the recording environment. Then there is the Utopia’s layering, which rivals some of the best I’ve heard from planar-magnetic headphones like the Arya. It’s adept at separating different instrument and vocal lines, which makes it incredibly easy to look into the music and focus on any one track, and it does all of it whilst remaining cohesive and highly musical.

Dynamics

If there is one quality which I would say all Focal headphones excel at, it’s dynamics, and the Utopia is no exception. In the lows, the Utopia hits with great authority, and it delivers a very satisfying sense of punch and slam. In the upper registers, the Utopia’s microdynamics recreate the tactility and impact that really brings out the energy behind various instruments. For example, the tension behind guitar strings has an adequate weight and snap to it, pianos have a nice attack that expresses the pressure with which keys are played, and percussive instruments have well-defined strike. The result of this highly-excursive quality is that the Utopia makes for one of the most engaging and lively listening experiences, which also helps in more realistically delineating the way in which music is performed.

EQ

Right out of the box the Utopia has an outstanding tuning, and one that I think most will easily find highly-enjoyable without EQ. Still, I like to tweak it very slightly just to bring it closer to my tastes and preferences. I like to add a bass shelf under 100hz to round out the bass a bit more and get more rumble out of the subbass region. I also like to make some adjustments to those upper midrange bumps, to make the timbre feel, for me, more natural. If you;d like to try out my preset for the Utopia, these are the settings I used:

  • Low Shelf at 100hz, +3dB Q of 0.7
  • Peak at 1500hz, -4dB Q of 2
  • Peak at 3000hz, -3dB Q of 4
  • Peak at 6000hz, -3dB Q of 6

Focal Utopia Review | Headphones.com

Conclusion

The Focal Utopia very rapidly rose to the top echelon of the headphone world, and after having the opportunity to listen to it for myself it’s very easy to understand why it’s held in such high esteem.

I think it’s not particularly egregious to say that the Utopia achieves the most excellent technical performance of any dynamic driver headphone. It’s incredibly fast, tuneful, and its ability to texture and nuance musical passages is somehow on a different level from anything else I’ve experienced. Its price tag of nearly $4,000 is hard to swallow, but if what you’re looking for is the very best of what dynamic driver headphones have to offer, then look no further than the Utopia.

-@Chrono

Watch the video review here:

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