Original Utopia vs. Utopia 2022: A Comparison of Two Headphones
If you know me even a little, you know how much I love the Focal Utopia headphone. I was head over heels shortly after our Focal rep handed it to me back in 2016. He explained that it was the world's first full-range and fully open-back loudspeaker built within a pair of headphones, using pure beryllium formed in a brand-new "M"-shaped dome. After slipping the Utopia on my head, my ears immediately began to smile. These were the best headphones I had ever heard. Years later, the Utopia remains one of my absolute favorites, one of my "desert island" headphones. In my book, it's simply unmatched in terms of detail, resolution, and musicality.
Needless to say, I had mixed feelings about listening to the Utopia 2022. On the one hand, I was super excited to see what Focal would do with my beloved Utopia. On the other hand, I feared (needlessly) that the new version wouldn't live up to my very lofty expectations. As it turns out, the Utopia 2022 has an updated look and a different flavor than the original, and I'm happily letting both headphones share real estate in my heart.
- Signature Focal look plus cool yoke design
- Musicality with a smoother top end; warmer than original
- Wonderfully wide and detailed sound
- Costs more than original
Why a New Utopia?
It's been six years since the Utopia was released. So why did Focal decide to release a new Utopia vs. an all-new open-back headphone?
As Megane Montabonel, chief designer of the Utopia 2022 told me, this is more an evolution of the Utopia. After all, it's got the same 40mm beryllium driver.
"I think when we launch a really new headphone," she continued, "it will be new in terms of technologies, drivers, maybe a different driver construction."
One thing that Focal has updated on the Utopia is the voice coil, citing some failure issues with the original. I've not experienced this, nor have I seen many customer complaints, but of course there is always room for improvement in any technology. So from that respect, I get it. The Utopia is such a legendary headphone, they don't want to take it away.
So, in Megane's opinion, does the Utopia 2022 sound the same as the original?
"Of course, we wanted to be close to the original, because the Utopia headphone needs to stay the Utopia headphone," Megane emphasized. "I think a customer who likes the Utopia will like the new one.
Is it just me or does the Utopia 2022 sound different?
Nope, it's not just me. While Focal was not endeavoring to change the sound signature of the Utopia, they did make some changes that have an inevitable effect on the sound.
According to Megane, there had been some market feedback that the highs on the Utopia could be a bit peaky. (This has never been my opinion, by the way.) Remember, there is no right or wrong when it comes to listening to any piece of audio gear. We all hear differently. Our ear canals are like fingerprints; no two are the same. But this was something they chose to address with the new Utopia. They added an M-shaped grille inside of the driver to help improve linearity in the high frequencies. The grill is now perfectly parallel to the shape of the driver, thus changing how reflections interact with the grille. The original grille was flat and sound energy reflected differently than the new iteration. Undoubtedly, this helped with taming high-frequency peaks. The hole openings in the grilles are also much larger. I think this was a smart move. Plus, they changed the composition of the voice coil to help make it more reliable.
"Of course when you change a component of the driver, it has some impact on the sound," Megane said. "So we keep the character and the signature of the Utopia, while improving the high frequencies, but still keeping a good low end, clear midrange, and all of the precision that we can have thanks to the beryllium driver."
Handcrafted in France: 40+ Years of Audio Expertise and Innovation
Focal is a French manufacturer of high-end loudspeakers and headphones. Research into speaker driver acoustics is their focus, and they are one of the only loudspeaker brands to manufacture their own drivers. Focal places a heavy value on acoustic expertise and developing exclusive technologies, investing great time and resources on research and development. "Made in France" is a source of pride and importance to Focal, with the majority of the company's production carried out on home turf.
Focal released their flagship Utopia headphone in 2016, featuring the world's first beryllium headphone driver. The Utopia featured a unique new driver design, ported on the backside with an M-sandwich design. The Utopia was made totally by hand by a small group in a clean room at the Focal facility. It didn't take long for the audiophile world to discover Utopia. Its popularity exploded, and Focal had trouble keeping up with demand. It's a good problem to have, though. It was clear that Focal has made the right move in keeping its headphone manufacturing in house, where it could have total control over every inch of the process.
Utopia 2022: A New Look
When you look at the two Utopias side by side, you can see they are cut from the same cloth, but there are some aesthetic differences.
The most obvious change is the grille pattern on the ear cups. While the original Utopia's grilles look like screens, the Utopia 2022 has been updated with the same honeycomb pattern found on the Focal Clear Mg. These grilles, which have a black chrome finish, also appear flatter than on the original Utopia. The yoke on the new Utopia is still carbon fiber, which helps with weight distribution on the head. But this time Focal used forged, recycled carbon, so each piece is going to have a different pattern. This adds some nice visual interest.
The new Utopia is all black, whereas the original had silver accents. The black ring on the middle of the ear cup is now attached form the inside for a cleaner appearance.
The outer part of the cup does not have the mirror finish of the original. It is a flatter finish that is much less prone to scratches as well as oil spots from our fingers, which makes it easier to keep looking fresh.
The connection point has moved south to the bottom of the headphone cup. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing. Only time will tell. It might cause issues with the cable pressing into your shoulder.
There's also now a flame logo on the center of each grille. There is a black and red grille double grille on the speaker driver's motor unit, and the visible red adds a pop of color when peering into the center of the ear cups. Another cool new detail is the subtle yin yang design on the outer case of the ear cups. Focal says this is to represent the balance of design and technology.
It's still a very comfortable headphone, with lambskin leather covering the memory foam on the earpads and headband. Utopia comes in faux-leather packaging with a black fabric thermoformed carrying case and two high-fidelity cables (10ft and 5ft / 3m and 1.5m) for using the headphones at home with an amplifier or on the go with Lemo® connectors and a Jack adapter.
Utopia 2022: What's been updated?
- New voice coil
- Yoke made from forged carbon
- Grilles are flatter and feature a new design
- Flame logo on center of ear cups
- No more silver accents
- Red speaker grille more visible
- Black ring now attached from the inside
Utopia 2022: What hasn't changed?
- Driver: 40mm beryllium M-shaped dome
- Weight: 1.08 lbs
- Impedance: 80 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB
- THD: <0.02% / 5Hz-50kHz
- Ear pads and headband: Lambskin leather
- Connectors: Lemo®
The Utopia 2022 driver uses the innovative 40mm pure beryllium M-shaped dome from the original Utopia. But as mentioned, there are some changes.
A big change is with the voice coil, which is now made from 70% aluminum (lower weight) and 30% copper (more reliable). The original was all 100% aluminum. Focal says the change was to address reliability issues with the original coil. This is not an issue that I have experienced, nor have we seen many failed drivers from customers, but I suppose there's always room for improvement in any design. We have one of the first Utopias to be released in 2016. It has thousands of hours. Been to so many headphone shows and seen so many demos at our shop. This alloy provides a rejuvenated sound signature, that lends even greater neutrality, with powerful bass and more mellow treble.
Another change is with the speaker grilles, which are now in an M-shape, following the curve of the speaker driver domes. This puts less space between the driver and the internal grille. This was implemented on the Clear Mg, and it improves the linearity of the treble. Some people thought the original Utopia was peaky in the highs, so Focal tried to address that in the new one. I personally never found the highs to be "peaky," but I have heard this as a criticism of the original.
Exclusive to Focal, the patented speaker drivers run with zero active or passive correction, from 5Hz to over 50 kHz. The headphones seem to totally disappear, leaving audio signal reproduction that is unrivaled in its purity.
Beryllium possesses two qualities that make it desirable: it's lightweight, and it's highly rigid—the most rigid metal, in fact. It's also expensive and dangerous to work with if protective measures aren't followed, as the dust is toxic. But its properties make for a driver with incredibly low distortion. Beryllium drivers such as in the Focal Utopia and the Focal Stellia are going to have a more analytical, detailed sound.
When you compare the specs on the Utopia vs. Utopia 2022, you won't see any differences. But identical specs doesn't mean the headphones will sound the same. And they don't.
Right out of the gate, I noticed that the Utopia 2022 sounds different - so much so that I did a double take. I immediately stopped listening and decided I had to put a good 150 to 200 hours on them. I find that headphones and speakers need a ton of time to loosen up.
You may or may not believe in the efficacy of a burn-in period, but I am a firm believer. I find most headphones at first are either edgy or sloppy sounding; with time they relax and become smoother and more controlled. Whether the reason is mechanical or electrical, again, I don't know. But with my 2016 Utopias having so many hours on them, I knew that to do a fair comparison, I needed to put some hours on the 2022.
The bulk of my comparison was done on the Auris Audio Nirvana headphone amplifier. I have one of the originals with dual ¼-inch jacks and a 4-pin XLR. This allowed me to connect both headphones at once and do quick comparisons. I used a Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro MQA DAC, which I find on the neutral side, and Roon control as a direct source for the DAC. I also built two fresh cables to make sure there would be no differences there. It was a short and simple audio chain, with all Black Dragon headphone cables and interconnects.
Boy do these headphones sound different. It really shows how changes like enclosures, grilles, materials around a driver, and back pressure from the driver can affect the sound. Now, it makes sense that the Clear MG driver and the Utopia driver sound different; they are different materials with different specs. The two Utopia drivers are identical spec-wise, other than the 100% aluminum coil now being made from 70% aluminum and 30% copper. I’m sure this might explain a small percentage of the change, but I think it's really everything around the driver that accounts for the changes. I would love to compare the measurements of my two Utopias; I might send them up to Jude at Head-Fi.org for measuring. It would be interesting to overlap the frequency responses.
Right out of the gate, I noticed that the Utopia 2022 sounds different—so much so that I did a double take. ... It really goes to show how changes like enclosures, grilles, materials around a driver, and back pressure from the driver can affect the sound.
So, what does the new Utopia sound like? Aside from being much warmer than the original, the depth of field is different. With the 2016 version, I find the vocalist to be a little closer to the rest of the band. Or the rest of the band is much closer to the front of the stage—like what you expect from a performance in a smaller club. There’s not a lot of room on the stage. Everything is much more intimate. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, just what I notice. With the 2022, it is more like being at an amphitheater where the band can spread out depth wise. Please don't get this confused with soundstage width, as this did not change much between the two models.
Let's get back to coloration. If you have read my original Utopia review or talked to me on the phone, I will pretty much always say the same thing: The Utopia 2016 is one of the few headphones that have incredible detail and resolution without sounding cold and sterile. Quite the contrary; they are quite smooth, but not warm and smooth. They are very controlled with great dexterity and an emotional tone. Very, very engaging. They have good bass, but by no means the bass of an Audeze headphone. But that's OK; I’ll take tight, controlled, true bass over anything else.
The Utopia 2022 is more like a smoky jazz club sound: warm but not lush and laid back. Everything is just a little smoother and rounded. These remind me a lot of the earlier Dan Clark headphones before the Stealth and the Expanse—a more organic sound, but with more control than, say, the ETHER 2, which is one of the warmest headphones I have ever listened to. They are a little fuller than the 2016 Utopia. Very smooth, musical, bold. So for those that did not appreciate the 2016 Utopia, I highly recommend a listen to the 2022. It's a different animal for sure. While obviously not inexpensive, I could definitely see myself owning both for different reasons. For different genres. For different headphone amps, like tube vs. solid state. For different cables, with silver-based vs. copper-based conductors. And on and on. I love this hobby.
Drew's test tracks:
"You Lost Me"
(Kind of Blue)
(The Final Cut)
Recommended Cable: Silver Dragon Premium
The original Utopia headphone plus a Black Dragon Premium cable is a match made in my personal audio heaven. Some customers like the Utopia with a Silver Dragon, but for me, the Black Dragon provides a subtle warming of the lower frequencies for more weight and musicality. With the Utopia 2022, however, the Silver Dragon Premium Headphone Cable gets my vote. Dragon Premium Cables feature enhancements like premium solder and connectors that make them a great match for cream-of-the-crop headphones. There is some warmth to the Utopia 2022, so I didn't feel the need to add any. Additionally, the top end on the Utopia 2022 is on the smoother side, so I didn't need top-end smoothing from the Black Dragon. The Silver Dragon gave me some top-end sizzle while ensuring that I'm getting maximum clarity and detail. I am what you call a critical listener. I want to analyze and dissect my music; I love details. The Silver Dragon is the perfect cable for critical listeners.
Why Dragon Cables?
Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs. what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon cables are handcrafted to the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs. At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.
Silver Dragon Sound Signature: The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase the soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with a lot of nuance and instrumentation.
They have the same name, the same specs, and much of the same look, but the Utopia 2022 is decidedly different from the original 2016 Utopia. The original Utopia is always going to have a special place in my heart. If I were forced to choose only one Utopia to have in my collection, I'd choose the original. But that's if I had to choose; the truth is, I'd really like to have both. Those who thought the original Utopia had a bit too much top-end energy are going to enjoy the smoother, more rounded sound of the update. While the Utopia 2022 sounds great with a wide variety of music, I find that genres like Folk, Jazz, Blues, and Americana really shine. Focal achieved something pretty amazing with the Utopia, and that is producing a headphone that is both highly detailed and musical. If that is the sound you crave, but you want a slightly softer edge with a bit of warmth, then you are going to love the Utopia 2022.
What's in the Box
- Focal Utopia 2022 headphones
- Black storage case
- Black fabric thermoformed carrying case
- Leather holder for product documentation
- 3m cable with XLR connector
- 1.5m mini jack cable with 6.35mm jack adapter
Focal Utopia 2022 Headphones Review, Unboxing & Comparison
- Impedance: 80 ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
- THD: <0.02% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
- Frequency response: 5Hz-50kHz
- Cables: 1.5m mini jack cable with 6.35mm jack adapter, 3m cable with XLR connector
- Carrying case: 9.8” x 9.4” x 4.7”
- Weight: 1.08lbs