The Focal Utopia are among the best headphones on the planet. That’s not a hyperbole. It’s not shilling. It’s just the truth. Sorry to spoil the conclusion of this review, but we can’t pretend to be ambivalent here. With these headphones, Focal beat Stax, Sennheiser, Abyss, AUDEZE and every other headphone maker on the planet, without even breaking a sweat. In this review, we break down the Focal Utopia’s sound, design, comfort and fit, packaging and accessories, specs and more. To see how they stack up, see our list of the best high-end headphones.
First off, the box is gorgeous. You don’t pay $5500 for a box, but the unboxing experience is second to none. The box itself feels like it’s made of a synthetic leather that feels smooth to touch, and when you open it a vivid red ribbon welcomes you to the headphones. There’s even some foam along the inside of the lid that gives you a hint as to where these belong: in the studio. Along with the headphones you’ll get some paperwork and instructions but that’s it. No fancy accessories or carrying cases here because after all, who’s really going to take these with them on the commute to work?
Accessories & Packaging
If there’s one thing we keep coming back to with Focal Utopia headphones, it’s the fact that their first impressions are misleading. For one thing, they have the exact same packaging as the $549 Focal Elear – here’s an unboxing video as proof. It’s a nice-enough interior, with the headphones pushed deep into black foam, and a slim cardboard box housing the cable. The most notable feature is the acoustic-panel-like knobbing on the underside of the lid. It looks good. Fine. Just not mind-blowing. But later, after we let these headphones have their way with our eardrums, we were reminded of the Warren Buffet analogy. Sometimes, you don’t need flash. Sometimes, you just need to get the job done. So, while the packaging doesn’t have too many bells and whistles, we find it very difficult to fault the headphones here.
Focal Utopia Accessories
We talked about the cable a little bit earlier, and it’s worth returning to it. It’s the lone accessory you get with the headphones – you don’t even get a carry case, which actually is a bit of a black mark, in our opinion. But that doesn’t stop the cable being seriously substantial. You could suspend a very heavy weight from it, if you were really bored and had nothing better to do. It’s a thick python, sitting snugly in the box, wrapped in a branded Velcro cable tie. At the end is a fat 6.3mm connector. It also happens to be long enough (9’) to get the job done, without getting in the way, and you can absolutely forget about tangles. They just don’t happen.
Acoustics and Driver
At the heart of the Focal Utopia is a driver unlike any I’ve seen before. The overall configuration is driven by the shape of the dome itself. Made from an Beryllium, it is extremely light and stiff. Unlike normal plastic film headphone diaphragms, the bulk of the surface area is taken up by the dome. This is important for a number of reasons:
- There is less opportunity for for trapped air resonances around the edge of the dome, outside the voice coil.
- The wide diameter of the voice coil allows for a large opening behind the dome to release sound from the back of the driver with less opportunity for resonances and poor tuning.
- Focal claims the large, stiff dome shape propagates the sound wave front more naturally towards the ear.
Attached to the rear at its annular crease, the dome is driven by an unusual voice coil. Most voice coils are built by wrapping the wire around plastic tube called a former which is then attached to the driver diaphragm. The Elear voice coil is built by wrapping the wire and adhesives around a form, but the form is removed before the voice coil is attached to the dome. This makes for an extremely light voice coil, and therefor a more responsive driver.
The dome is attached to the frame with a surround that acts as a suspension allowing the dome to move back and forth freely. The surround is an astonishing 80 microns thin (about the same thickness as a human hair) and permits the dome to move relatively long distances without impediment keeping distortion low even at high volumes and low, long excursion, frequencies.
Being quite curious about their design process, I sent a couple of question over to the folks at Focal about the differences between the Elear and Focal Utopia drivers. They responded:
The Beryllium dome is 15mg lighter than the Aluminum-Magnesium one. The weight of the mobile assembly of Utopia is 135 mg, whereas the Elear one is 150mg.
Moreover, even if the Aluminum-Magnesium M shape dome offers a very interesting mass-rigidity-daping ratio, it can not be compared to the Beryllium one.
As Beryllium is more than 35 times more rigid in flexure than Titanium as an example. This results in an extremely low distortion of the dome itself Moreover, the damping of Beryllium is impressive. The sound velocity of Beryllium is 2.5 times higher than Titanium. These two parameters, plus the lightness of Beryllium offer a dome that will reproduce the audio signal with an impressive precision, without adding or hiding any information contains within the audio signal thanks to an impressive lightness in order to react super fast, very high rigidity to avoid distortion and great damping to avoid sound coloration as an example.
We’ll get to it in the Sound Quality section, but I’ll say right here and now, there’s a clear difference between the Elear and Focal Utopia: the Elear has great punch and dynamic control, but the Utopia bests it in balancing solid dynamic impact with nuanced resolve. To borrow a phrase from the SBAF guys, this headphone has great plankton.
The entire driver assembly is mounted to the rear of the angled portion of the baffle plate, and the dome is position slightly forward, aiming back at the ear. Around the driver in the baffle plate is a large array of vent openings covered in a very fine open mesh.
This leaves a fairly large opening for sound to escape the ear cup, travel through the mesh and into the ear capsule, and exit the ear capsule through the outer metal screen making this a very acoustically open headphone. The sound from the back of the driver exits through the central screen of the outer ear capsule; the two acoustic signals never meet until outside the headphones. Very cool.
The headphone is a bit on the heavy side although the distribution of weight for this 490g headphone seems to be very well thought out. The lambskin leather memory foam ear cushions make it extra comfortable which makes it very nice to the touch. These headphones definitely make your ears feel spoiled when talking on a physical level on top of the sound.
As for the headband, I could see the constant bend being a bit too wide or too shallow for someone outside of the average head size but I found no problems with it personally. I was able to lean back without worrying about it falling off my head and turning my head side to side did not make it slip at all. The Utopia made me feel like my head was in the clouds despite it being noticeable in weight.
Focal Utopia Design
Here’s another bit of trickery from the Focal Utopias. It came when we first pulled the headphones out of the box, and realised that they didn’t look and feel particularly high-end. We were expecting wood-grain, even though we knew it wasn’t a part of these headphones. We wanted the same luxurious feel under our fingers, the same kind of impression that so many other high-end headphones have given us in the past.
And at first glance, the Utopias looked…a little boring. They both felt and looked like any other pair of headphones, not dissimilar to others in the Focal lineup. They had no particular design highlights, nothing to really draw the eye. It was mildly disappointing.
Until we realised that the hinges weren’t plastic. They were carbon fibre. The squashy earpads were covered in luxurious, understated, genuine lambskin leather. The lack of baubles and trim was all part of the plan. What we realized was that these headphones don’t need flash for the same reason that Warren Buffet doesn’t need to drive a Maybach. When you’re the best, you don’t need to show off. You can just be. And it must be said that despite our initial misgivings about the design, these are built like a tank. We didn’t actually drop them to test their ruggedness, because we are not insane, but we felt like we could.
They have a satisfying weight in the hand, and everywhere you look, there are subtle details that suggest these were put together very capably indeed. Compare them to other high-end headphones, like the Abyss Diana Phi. Those headphones are a delight, but they are also finicky and difficult, and feel like they’re going to fall apart when you look at them. They’re the same price as the Utopias – but once again, we know which headphones we’d pick.
This is without a doubt a great, high quality cable. But at almost 10 feet long it’s also kind of ridiculous. I get that these are intended for high-end listening sessions or studio use, and in the studio you might need some extra slack for when you’re moving around.
But considering a) how easily these slip off the head when moving and b) how expensive these are, I can’t think of any reasonable person who wouldn’t first take these off and set them down carefully before moving around too much. And I mean very carefully.
You plug the cables into the bottom of each earcup via Lemo connectors which snap in nicely and stay secure during use. The other end of the super long cable ends in a ¼” Neutrik jack which means that unless you’re plugging these into professional equipment you’re going to need an adapter. The cable has an impedance of 80 ohms and a sensitivity of 104dB SPL/1mW.
I had to consult with fellow Sound Guys Chris Thomas and re-read his great piece on amps to make sure the math was right, but you don’t need an amp to power these. Music still played when I plugged them straight into the headphone jack of my Macbook Pro. That said, if you want to reach a decent listening level without needing to max out the volume an amp will definitely help.
Focal Utopia Build
Its 35 years of speaker design experience shows here. The highlight is the 40mm Beryllium drive unit, which covers the frequency range from 5Hz to 50kHz, and is shaped to deliver exactly the kind of dispersion the engineers wanted.
The company is already strongly associated with Beryllium drive units, thanks to its use in the brand’s high-end tweeters, and the material’s combination of low weight, rigidity and damping works equally well in this application.
The use of a single drive unit doesn’t give the engineers much room to tailor the performance. There’s no crossover to adjust or multiple drivers to balance, just the cone material, diaphragm shape and surround to play with. If there’s some drive unit flaw it can’t be hidden and is harder to correct.
Fortunately, Focal has built its business around drive units, and has been developing them for decades, so if anyone can make a single driver configuration to work properly it can.
Focal Utopia Sound
The Focal Utopia, on paper, shouldn’t be the best headphones in the world. For one thing, they are dynamic driver headphones – a type of driver that is found in everything from Beats By Dre to Skullcandy. It’s by far the most common type of headphone driver, and is vastly different to the electrostatic and planar types found in most other high-end headphones. The fact that Focal have managed to claw their way to the top of the audio world with this type of driver is nothing short of extraordinary. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Focal use beryllium drivers: ultra-light, ultra-stiff, the secret weapon in their arsenal, capable of generating sound with minimal movement. What that translates to is jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, staggering detail and clarity – especially when driven by a decent headphone amp. We tested it on several, including the outstanding PrimaLuna Dialogue HP (and a big thank you to the equally-outstanding Soundroom in Vancouver, BC, for letting us swing by to do so).
By the first note, you know these are special. By the first verse, you’re in awe. The elements of the song are laid out like diamonds on black velvet. Everything is in its own place, perfectly positioned – so clear and lifelike that it’s as if you’re in studio with the musicians, watching them work, mere feet away. No headphone we’ve ever heard has shown this much clarity, this much realism. It defies belief. To call the highs detailed would be to short-change the word, and the mids are as warm and welcoming as the bed in the guest room of a favored relative.
All is calm. All is clear. And the Focal Utopia have influenced just about every pair of Focal headphones that came after them, from the much cheaper Focal Clear to the pricey, closed-back Stellia. We really can’t exaggerate how good they are – one of the very few pairs of headphones that left us completely breathless.
At first listen, we felt we discovered a flaw in the Focal Utopia’s sound: slightly anaemic bass. But after a few minutes, we realised that wasn’t fair. The bass was absolutely there, working hard in the background, as clear and concise as everything in the mids and highs. It was just restrained – its power and weight, like everything else, perfectly controlled. It doesn’t have the knockdown bass of something like the AUDEZE LCD-2, which rips and roars and snorts and dances a mad jig on your eardrums.
It’s an elegant Rolls Royce to the LCD-2’s muscle car, putting out the same amount of power in a much more refined fashion. It’s true that those who don’t like the Focal Utopias – believe it or not, such people exist – often criticize the limited low end. We think they’re full of nonsense.