How much? We’re no strangers to high end hi-fi but even we had to take a second look at the new Focal Utopia headphones' suggested price. Like pretty much everything else – from energy to food – the price of hi-fi has shot up, and in this case it is by just over 20 per cent over the original model. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are at the moment. The product’s name remains unchanged though, with not even a Mk 2 to differentiate the two generations.
Get past the price, if you can, and you’ll find that Focal has given its range-topping open-back headphones a gentle revamp. Not that they needed much work given that the original Utopia were right up there with the very best money could buy. It may surprise many to learn that even at this new higher price, they continue to cost less than most of the top-end competition.
So what has Focal done? The most obvious changes are the cosmetic ones. The grilles that cover the outside of the earcups now have a hexagonal pattern to more closely match the visual design of the company’s recent premium offerings, such as the Clear Mg. That hexagonal pattern isn’t just for show either, as it’s claimed to be more open than the previous version, so helping to produce a more spacious and dynamic sound.
Type Wired over ear
Design Open back
Drive unit 40mm Beryllium ‘M-shaped’ cone
Impedance 80 ohms
Frequency response 5Hz - 50kHz
You’ll find that the wide and soft ear pads use perforated lambskin and memory foam as before, but now include a slightly different material on the inside edge to fine-tune the acoustics around the ear. The grille that protects the 40mm Beryllium driver is reshaped too, in this case to reduce distortion at high frequencies.
That drive unit hasn’t been ignored either. It has a new voice coil made of a copper/aluminium alloy rather than just the aluminium of the original. This revision is claimed to deliver a more neutral and refined presentation. As before, Focal’s engineers have angled the driver to create a more spacious out-of-the-head presentation that aims to be closer to that achieved by speakers.
The use of a single drive unit per channel means that there isn’t a crossover in the signal path, meaning that the phase shifts and loss of transparency that are part and parcel of such circuits are avoided. Of course, a crossover network normally allows the designers to tweak and equalise the driver’s sonic outputs, something that Focal can’t do here, but given the company’s expertise in drive unit design it is in a better position than most to solve any issues.
Despite a fairly hefty 490g weight these Focals feel wonderfully welcoming. The clamping pressure is nicely judged to hold the Utopia securely without being oppressive over longer listening sessions, and those soft ear pads feel pleasant to the touch, as does the nicely padded, leather-bound headband. There have been cosmetic changes to the sliding yoke that holds the earcups, but it’s still made of carbon fibre and is sensibly shaped.
The Utopia come in suitably luxurious packaging as befits a product at this level. Unboxing them is every inch the feel-good luxury experience we would hope for. But put the lovely packaging to the side – physically and metaphorically – and the important things are the inclusion of a relatively short 1.5m cable terminated by a conventional 3.5mm jack and a longer 3 metre balanced lead with a four-pin XLR. Both these cables connect to the headphones with a pair of Lemo connectors and are generally good at resisting the transmission of noise when we move. You also get a screw-on 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor.
Don’t even think about plugging these headphones directly into your phone, laptop or iPad. That would be a waste, as you would never know how good they can sound. We suggest at least CD-spec music files, high-res would be preferable, dedicated music playing software such as Audirvana or Roon and a talented outboard DAC. Of course, high-end turntables, CD players and streamers would all be fine sources, but you’ll need a top quality headphone amp at the very least.
Our main set-up is Naim’s ND555/555 PS DR music streamer plugged straight into Burmester’s 088 preamp, which has a rather fine headphone amplifier circuit with an output that’s inconveniently positioned on the back. Our second system is made up of a MacBook Pro loaded with Audirvana software and feeding a Chord Hugo TT DAC/headphone amp.
Given a partnering system of suitable quality there really is no denying that these Focal Utopia are truly exceptional performers. They are wonderfully transparent and ruthlessly explicit about the differences in recording and production quality between our various test tracks. Even recordings that we know well surprise us with previously undiscovered nuances that, on occasion, make us appreciate the music in a slightly different way.
You would have to spend many times the Utopia’s hefty price to get speakers that can even approach the level of insight and resolution on offer here. Of course, with speakers you’ll also need a large, neutral-sounding listening room and suitably capable (and invariably very expensive) amplifier to match.
We listen to a wide range of music over our time with these headphones. It’s easier than ever to appreciate the immaculate production on Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block. It is as slick as they come, and at times dynamically challenging and densely packed. The Focals take it all in hand, layering their presentation with a sea of fine detail that reveals instrumental textures and the passion in vocals superbly. All that information is presented in a composed and organised way, but importantly, these headphones don’t dilute the excitement in the music. They’re great at conveying the rhythmic drive of the title track and also the pulsating ebb and flow of tracks like The Places You Find Love.
We don’t have an original pair of Focal Utopia to hand, but from memory we think Focal’s claim of greater refinement for this new generation rings true. These headphones are even and open; the angling of the drive units inside the earcup really does help to give a more spacious and speaker-like presentation than the in-your-head norm.
This aspect comes to the fore when we listen to Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar OST. Here these Focals render the complex arrangements with ease, delivering an expansive soundfield that’s packed with dynamic contrasts and punch. We’re particularly taken with the way these cans reproduce the lows. Being an open-backed design there isn’t the quantity or power of bass that closed alternatives usually offer, but equally, no closed-back we’ve heard can get remotely close to the articulation and insight on offer here. These Utopia headphones just sound impressively natural and fluid, revealing subtle shifts in low-end intensity and frequency so easily. It’s all beautifully cohesive too, as would be expected from just a single drive unit.
It doesn’t matter whether we play the raw-sounding Born To Run from Bruce Springsteen or the jazz of Kind Of Blue from Miles Davis, these headphones sound comfortable and in control. They never get in the way or have any obvious traits that limit our enjoyment of any particular type of music. That speaks volumes for their overall balance and wide ranging strengths.
By headphone standards these are hugely expensive and are priced well beyond most of the top moving coil driver alternatives. It is important to note that these Focals outperform them too. More serious competition comes against premium electrostatic designs such as the Stax SR-L700 Mk2/SRM-700T combination we reviewed a while back. The contrast is interesting, with the Stax delivering even more in the way of outright detail and precision but at the expense of the Utopia’s dynamic punch and rhythmic drive.
Regardless, in our opinion these new Focal Utopia sit comfortably among the very best headphones money can buy. Feed them with a system of suitable quality and you’ll experience one of the finest sounds we’ve yet heard.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Comfort 5
Read our review of the Stax SR-L700 Mk2/SRM-700T
Also consider the Warwick Acoustics Sonoma Model One