My Focal Utopia headphones review reminds me why I love music so much. In fact, the Utopia headphones help me recall how the Chord Hugo dac knocked my socks off and took me off guard too at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2014.
After a long day of gear demos, my friend, Jamil and I decided to give up. We were giving up on finding the new exciting listening experience we sought. I fired off a “tired of same old stuff” text to HeadFi.org Founder and good friend Jude Mansilla. “Hit the Chord Electronics room yet?” Jude asked with no hint of understatement or foreshadowing Chord’s Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) sound revolution.
“They’ve created a killer portable headphone Amp/DAC you need to hear named Hugo,” Jude told me. I literally ran up to Chord’s room and the world of headphones, music and audio gear changed.
Sometimes you get lucky. You know when your world, business, and preconceptions are being changed, destroyed and rebuilt beautifully before your eyes and ears. Chord’s Hugo and Mojo changed music, audio gear, the audio world, and “mobile” music and “high-fidelity” and Moon-Audio.com has hundreds of audio gear revolutionaries and customers now.
Suddenly and again a French company shifted the audio world again.
Focal's Secret HeadFi Visit
When the French speaker designer Focal secretly visited Headfi.org’s Detroit, Michigan headquarters, Jude was asked who should help introduce their new hand crafted headphones. Who, Focal wanted to know, could explain, define, and share their new cans in addition to established Focal speaker dealers? Thankfully, Jude recommended Moon-Audio.com.
Jude is menschy and one of the smartest audio minds in the world. Once again, he had a gift for profound understatement. He let us know Sanjay, Focal’s North American Sales Director, wanted to visit Moon-Audio.com at our Cary, North Carolina office in a couple of days. Focal was taking a speedy trek across America explaining their new headphones to existing Focal speaker dealers and a handful of other companies.
Focal's New Reference Headphones
We had no idea two new reference quality, headphones capable of recreating the “as recorded” listening experience, cans were about to walk in the door from a speaker manufacturer in France.
Sanjay arrived with a large suitcase. Opening his “sample case” out popped 2 attractive and a ominous looking headphones - the Focal Elear ($995) and Utopia ($3,999).
I went straight for the Utopia. I plugged in Sanjay’s Focal Utopia headphones into the Pass Labs HPA-1 amplifier I’d warmed up for the meeting and, listening to a single track, my ears began to smile...again. Ever seen an ear smile?
I use 4 songs to test new audio gear:
I’ve listened to these songs so often and with thousands of different audio gear setups. I’ve listened so much I may hate these songs at this point. These four songs are burly, full of dynamic range and other “testing gold”.
Any product weaknesses are easy to hear, pick out and examine. But I didn’t hear any.
Focal’s Utopia - $10,000 Headphones for Much Less
And then my jaw dropped as my ears melted. I have spent weeks listening to Focal’s Elear and Utopia headphones now. Feelings about these astonishing headphones today are no different than my initial listen out of Sanjay’s magic suitcase.
Focal’s Utopia is at the top of my favorites list along with Hifiman HE-1000, Audeze LCD-3, MrSpeakers Ether Flow (open and closed), Fostex TH900 Mk2 headphones, and EnigmAcoustics Dharma D1000. There can only be one number 1.
Stranded on an island with only one pair of cans, Focal’s Utopia would be my survival headphones edging out Audeze, Sennheiser, HiFiman, and others. The sound of Focal’s Utopias isn’t about something lacking in other great brands. No,
Focal’s sound is more about how a French speaker maker has moved the bar.
Could Focal’s Utopia’s cost $10,000? Yes, the sound is that good. Now let’s discuss why some very smart music lovers and audiophiles are buying the best sounding headphones in the world for much less than they are worth.
I listen to a lot of Patricia Barber. I think of her as the Pink Floyd of Jazz. Between her piano, percussionist and bass player, there is a ton of stuff going on. Utopia's driver cuts through everything like a knife.
Musical layers appear naturally and well defined. Every note stands on its own with presence, resonance, guile and charm. There is no clutter, hurry or distortion.
On a headphone with distortion, and I don't mean to the point where the audio is edgy, the sound of many of Patricia Barber’s songs runs together. Nuances in her music are lost. Listen to Morning Grace to understand the importance of nuance, silence and clarity in music and audio gear.
Focal Utopia Design
Focal’s Utopia and Elear headphones represent the next revolution in driver design, similar to the Sennheiser HD800 headphones when they first arrived. The diameter of Focal’s driver closely follows the diameter of the voice coil with an open back magnet assembly thus there is no trapped air behind the dome.
The driver uses pure Beryllium formed in the new "M" shaped dome which is extremely rigid and super light which results in incredibly low distortion and quite possibly the best in the headphone marketplace. I was a very passionate DIY speaker builder in my early years so I've played around with all types of tweeters: soft domes made of silk or metal domes such as aluminum or titanium.
Focal's Beryllium inverted dome tweeter for speakers was introduced in the '90s and it was new and exciting as it offered a much more rigid structure that was super lightweight. Fabric tweeters were smooth but colored, metal dome tweeters were detailed and fast but often had a glaring beam or ringing to them. However, Beryllium offered outstanding off-axis dispersion and a silky smooth sound while managing to provide extreme detail. It was almost a perfect balance and Beryllium always had a special place in my heart, and I'm sure this is why I gravitate so much to the Utopia sound today.
Focal Utopia Sound Signature
When you first put on a pair of Focal’s Utopia headphones, you feel energy behind the sound. Holding the headphones in your hand while music plays feels like you’re holding a speaker, not a headphone.
I haven’t experienced this effect from any other headphone. Think of Focal Utopia headphones as miniature ported speakers with the most amazing sound you can put on your head. Utopia’s sound reminds me of the old AKG K1000 Earspeakers.
The AKG K1000 had pads external to the driver plate. Listeners would rotate the driver plate to produce the right presentation between drivers and ears creating unique design and listening experience. Utopia’s sound and experience are just as unique. The Focal Utopia’s aren’t like any other headphones I’ve heard.
The shape of the driver I assume is what is creating the energy field my ears are feeling. It is a unique shape designed to push more of the sound out on the forward side of the driver vs the rear. It's interesting to me that if you place your ear on the backside of the driver or outside the cup, how flat and dead the sound is. This is the total opposite to a planer driver headphone.
If you put an earcup on each side of a driver, the sound would be identical. I feel like I am getting twice the energy with the Focal drivers which translates remarkable tonal balance. Bottom line is I just love this headphone for so many reasons.
Upgrade Cables for the Focal Utopia
On the topic of providing these phones with all the tools needed to be their best, here are some upgrade cable recommendations. In most cases, I prefer a copper cable to a silver cable for the Utopia. I find copper falls more in line with the sound signature, which I don't want to change much. The stock cable is 15 feet long, very heavy and unyielding. It is my only complaint about the 2 headphones. The cable is too heavy on the head and I have to coil it in my lap so it's not bothersome.
The Black Dragon Premium Cable V2 is what I prefer with the Utopia and what I used for this review. It provides a fuller presentation with a meatier sound over the stock cable and improved clarity. It adds a little warmth, but not too much. I don't find our copper cables overly warm like the Cardas cables which we also sell. The black dragon tends to be on the Natural to Neutral front. If you want to an even warmer, smoother presentation look at the Cardas Clear headphone cable. For the Focal Elear, I prefer the Silver Dragon V3 more often than our black dragon. The Silver Dragon opens up the top-end frequencies and adds more layers of resolution to the Elear sound signature which helps move it closer to the Utopia in terms of dynamics and detail.
Because of the smooth nature of the Focal Utopia, I more often prefer listening with a Tube amp. I primarily use the Cary CAD 300SEI and the Dragon Inspire IHA-1 tube headphone amp, both designed by the legendary Dennis Had, the founder of Cary audio who is now in Semi-Retirement. The CAD300SEi is a heavily modified version I had built to order: direct coupled with Cardas Coupling caps, Moon Audio wiring, a DACT attenuator and a whole host of other upgrades. The Dragon Inspire IHA-1 was very well received by Nicolas Debard, the Focal Utopia Product Manager at Canjam London. He thought it was the perfect match for the Utopia's. This is not to say the Utopia is not a good match for Solid State amps, but for my favorite music which is Jazz, Blues, and Americana, tube amplifiers are what I use.
In a Solid State amp, I found the Pass Labs HPA-1 to be my favorite with the Utopia. This amp has such amazing command and control. On big orchestral pieces, the presentation was enormous. Listen to Hans Zimmer's score for the Dark Knight. Wow, just wow. As well such things as Les Claypool on the Bass. The Frontman for Primus would love this headphone. This is a headphone that makes the cost of higher res downloads worth every penny. I've spent more money on music in the last few months than I did in the last 12 months so I could thoroughly enjoy every bit of my Utopias. Yes, the price tag of the Utopia can be out of reach for many, but hopefully, you can find a way to save up or sell some gear to get a pair. I'm confident the Elear will truly knock your socks off as well. See my Focal Elear review here to learn more.
Build quality of the Focal Utopia and Elear, are works of art, handcrafted in France.
You are easily getting double what you are paying with both headphones. I am enamored that the Elear is only $995. I can't think of another headphone at $995 that comes close to the build quality and thought behind the design of this headphone. I'm hard pressed to find a $2000 headphone that can compete with the Elear build quality.
The Utopia has the same Elear build quality with military specs and exotic materials like a 100% carbon fiber frame, petard leather bands and pads, and a pure beryllium M dome. These are just a few examples of why you receive a $10,000 value with the Utopia headphones for a $3999 price tag.
Focal’s Utopia innovations in design and build quality defeat distortion’s bear making these precious headphones the best in the world. Music sounds natural, present and there’s no bear between you and the people who created your favorite music, no bear between Patricia Barber and me.
A growing tribe of music lovers is buying our supply of Utopia’s almost as fast as the team in France can craft them. If you love music, want the best headphones, and want to save money since you will purchase cans worth more than twice their current cost treat yourself to a pair of Utopia’s. And join me on an island of beautiful music, amazing sound, and where everyone speaks French and we do too.
We'd love to answer any questions you may have about the Utopia or Elear headphones. Please leave a comment below and we'll be happy to answer your questions live on the blog.