World's Best Headphone: The Focal Utopia

Über-expensive headphones are the bane of my existence. They should sound damned good, but historically they all to often have fatal flaws that degrade perceived performance to the point that they really aren't all that much better than some headphones of a much lower price. Sure, they're usually excellent in some ways, but for me a flagship headphone should have a strong balance of performance across the board in addition to areas of outstanding sonic character.

As much as it grates on headphone enthusiasts with normal-sized wallets, flagship headphones are also luxury items and it's perfectly understandable that they're price accordingly...as long as the luxury is really there. In every way from leather pads to carbon fiber parts to high-quality connectors, materials of a $1000+ headphone should be of very high quality....and when the price exceeds $2000 the bar gets even higher. A headphone in this category should never feel or appear cheap in any way.

On these two points, Focal has nailed it...on a couple of levels! First, and maybe most importantly, the recently reviewed Focal Elear at $999 competes very strongly with all other $1000+ headphones and, to my ears, bests them in terms of over-all balance. Second, that's right, Focal's step-down from flagship headphone is already competing head-to-head with the field...and in this present review we'll take a look at their top-of-the-line Utopia ($3999) to see if we're breaking into new territory.

Focal Utopia ($3999)
Okay Utopia, $4k huh, I'm lookin' at you, this better be good.

Oh my, this is a sexy headphone! In my world, killer audio gear is black, and the Utopia is unapologetically, confidently, bad-ass black. Sumptuous black lamb-skin leather covers ample memory foam ear and headband pads. Curvaceous carbon fiber yolks with black-on-black Focal logo attach to the gloss black plastic capsule housing on one end, and slide into the headband through black anodized aluminum headband end fittings. Black metal mesh and matte black plastic outer capsule covers are accentuated by a black anodized driver rear cover ring emblazoned with "Utopia - Beryllium - Fabrique en France." A brushed aluminum grill covers the central rear driver hole. Outer capsule housing holds connections for the two black Lemo connectors on the headphone's cable, which is terminated at the player end with a high-quality Neutrik 1/4" phone plug. All-in-all this is a stealth-black sexy build, with terrific materials, and just the right balance of understatement and bling. A headphone that looks like a million bucks, yours for the paltry sum of $4000. Yes, go ahead and open up the black leather with red stitching accent display case and show it off to your buddies, the Utopia is a battle-ready flagship headphone.

At 490 grams (sans cables) I'd consider it a hefty headphone. For comparison: Audeze LCD-2=570gr; HiFiMAN HE1000=470gr; Ether Flow=400gr; Sennheiser HD 800 S=380gr; Focal Elear=438. Even though weight is a bit on the high side, the Utopia remains a very comfortable headphone. The lambskin leather over memory foam headband pad is plush and distributes the weight over about half the width of my head; the similarly covered earpads have a generous 60mm x 50mm openings and are about 23mm thick with some additional depth in the rear due to the angled driver. These should work just fine for folks with big ears. Caliper pressure is spot on.

The only ergonomic niggle I have is that the cable is quite heavy and can pull significantly as you move around, or increase the headphone weight if the cable is dangling—I ended up putting a small loop of cable on my lap when I listened to lower the dangling weight. While I'm on niggles, the carbon fiber yolks seem to creak a little in the headband adjusters when you manually hold the earcups in each hand and twist. I think it's just a bit of stiction of the carbon fiber agains the sliders of the adjustment mechanism. If you've ever heard a racing sailboat take up the wind, you'll know that a bunch of creaking sometimes is an indicator of high-performance materials—that's how I'm chalking this one up. I heard nothing of this noise when wearing the headphones.

Acoustics and Driver
Focal_Utopia_Photo_DriverExploded

At the heart of the 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 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 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.

Focal_Utopia_Photo_BafflePlate

Focal Utopia baffle plate.

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.

Focal_Utopia_Photo_ThroughCup

Looking through the capsule you can see this is a very acoustically open headphone.

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.

Focal's Development Effort
Focal_Utopia_Photo_Compare

I can't stress enough how astonishingly impressive I find the new Focal Utopia and Elear headphones. I knew Focal was a great speaker builder. I knew they had extraordinary expertise. But I'm not intimately familiar with the speaker world and their acumen within it, and that expertise doesn't necessarily translate directly into the headphone world. To see these headphones appear suddenly and with such command in a domain with which I am intimately familiar is disorienting. It's as if a new mountain just popped into view in an otherwise familiar landscape.

I asked them about their design goals when developing these two new headphones:

Basically, we wanted to achieve the best headphones in their price categories in regards to two key points: performances and comfort. These two points lead the project from the first to the very last step. As an example, on the performance side, this resulted in a totally new driver concept (patent pending). On the comfort side, both Utopia and Elear ensure a very good fit whatever the head size and shape due to an in-depth study and design of the headband and yoke.

I was hoping for a 20 page reply; the project I'm told, has been actively on-going for the past four years. Having been involve with product development projects numerous times in the past and now having experience these headphones, I'm not surprised in the least that these cans were four years in the making. Focal has largely redefined...or better said, refined anew, what it means to be a high-end headphone. A technological tour de force.

Astonishing!

And now to the good part, let's have a listen...

COMPANY INFO
FOCAL NORTH AMERICA
9641-82 Ave
EDMONTON, AB T6C 0Z9
1 780 439 39 01
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
drm870's picture

How does this compare to Sennheiser's new Orpheus version?

drm870's picture

Whoops, forgot the Orpheus is an electrostat (and would presumably be included in your lump "Electrostatics" comparison, then). Sorry!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've only had a couple short listening sessions with it. I wouldn't want to lump it in with the others out of hand, but I can tell you that I was personally more impressed with the Utopia when first exposed to it. $55000 is a VERY high bar.
drm870's picture

About what I expected you to say. :) I mean, regardless of which you thought was better on absolute terms, I figured the Utopia pretty much had to be the better value (to put it lightly).

brax's picture

Tyll,
Hi.
I would love to hear your opinion of the Utopia in direct comparison with the Stax SR-009 and one of the better electrostatic amps you yourself reviewed in 2012. As in 'The Big Sound' your only having one electrostatic amp, one nobody would have claimed as the best at bringing out the best in the Stax SR-009 that you are basing your present opinion on - and - that almost a year removed -? As both phones you rated as 'the world's best headphone', with your extraordinary perspective your objective opinion of one against the other - set up competitively - would be extremely useful.
Thanks

EvenR's picture

Which ones are best with the elear and utopia?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I test all headphones on the Simaudio HA430.
shp.jc's picture

I heard the Focals with the Simaudio 430 at the Focal event at The Source AV and the combination was fantastic.

sunnydaler's picture

typical close-miked and heavy-handed 'popular music' recording are not good for imaging test in super near-fielding listening.

thekorsen's picture

Its funny you mentioned soundstage depth being EQ dependant, I was coming to the same conclusion after experimenting to make my TH-X00s sound like my ALpha Primes. By adding a sloped EQ in certain areas, it seemed like the placement of certain instruments was changed in the vertical axis too. But overall, it seems like the presence region and the bass had the biggest impact on staging. When EQed with staging in mind, I did get my X00s to have much larger soundstage (now more out of the head than in) and got the primes to be very upfront and intimate. It really makes me wonder if this has anything to do with how the HD800 create depth, and if a depth focused EQ on the elear could bring it onto the playing field of the sound stage big boys, abeit at the cost of a great tonal flavor.

tony's picture

Dynamic Drivers
.08 milliwatt effeciency, an easy to drive 86 ohm voice coil.
A new Gold Standard.

I'm quite pleased about Equalization being a part of this Review, it's about time the Consumer folks to realize it's importance.

$4,000 should be easy for those 'collectors' who've already spent far beyond this level ( time for Ebay to do it's closet cleaning job ).

Betcha these things would be useful for evaluating various Electronics and Recording Sound Quality for guys like Bob Katz, I hope to hear his input on this.

Thanks for sharing the good news!

Tony in Michigan

ps. A high-tech advancement from a Socialist Economy, one we've never gone to war with, hmm, something strange about all this.

JacktheMac's picture

Why on earth should a socialist economy not produce high tech items ?

You sound as if you’re confusing a socialist economy with a Soviet economy. America is getting so loony tunes right wing that socialism is a dirty word. Perhaps you should visit Europe where most countries have free health care, higher educational standards and top rank literacy rates – and socialist parties either in power or the main opposition.

I don’t want to go off topic, and this will be my one and only post on the subject, but remember there is a real world outside the US where socialism and liberalism are perceived as Good Things by a large percentage of the people.

tony's picture

I quite agree, I visit Europe often and am rather envious of the Europeans. I'm working to bring those European qualities to the USA.

I included my little snipe to remind folks that France and Socialism is a very good thing creating very good things.

Your response warms my heart.

Annnnnnd, America is getting Loony Tunes, I'm glad you noticed!, Europeans I work with are amazed at how "nuts" American consumerism has become.

I hope to meet you, one day. I stand with the JacktheMacs of the World!!!

Thanks for writing,

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've been part of the Bernie Sanders infrastructure

JacktheMac's picture

Tony

In my haste to condemn I misread your comment. Apologies !

I was in NYC last month (I've lost count of the number of times I have been to the US in the last 35 years) and I guess the polarisation of GOP and Democrats scared me.

Anyway, whatever our political or economic cultures, how the heck are we are going to afford these headphones ! My Philips Fidelio IIs will have to last a while yet, though I'm intrigued by the eLears...

And yes, if I was American I'd be Bernie all the way.

tony's picture

Patience is a virtue,
posses it if you can,
seldom in a Woman,
often in a Man!

shakesphere ( i think )

Someone will buy the el-ears and then decide to buy the Utopia.
The Elears will appear on Ebay for 60%-70% of Retail, ( beautiful condition ).
You've saved and are ready.
Viola, you'll have them.

In the mean time you'll have had the advantage of letting "Impulsive - Compulsive" tendencies fade to manageable levels.

And you'll have the advantage of noticing Sennheiser's response to these new Driver technologies, perhaps creating an even more attractive set of options.

What's the hurry? Our wonderful TTVJ ( up in Montana of all places ) aptly describes how we are now rapidly advancing.

Of course, Tyll's endorsements of these transducers is causing all the up-roar, who'd believe anyone else on these matters?

Have a quick look-see at his next Wall of Fame and up-grade accordingly.

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I think even 60-70% of $1000/£800 would probably precipitate divorce proceedings in the JacktheMac household !

Tyll keeps dangling these sublime goodies on my screen. Get thee behind me !

tony's picture

That's a good one but don't try saying that to a Woman!

On the entire World Scale, you've made it up to a Quality Audio system, you are one of the "Lucky Few"!

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I know. Time to appreciate what we have. The Fidelio X2s knocked my socks off, and they can now be bought for under £200/$350.

Plus I just took delivery of a new Canon 80D to replace my ancient 30d, so I can’t complain !

tony's picture

Very nice camera, 1080P Video @ 60 frames.

Seems like we all have a Camera love.

I've limited myself to the tiny pocket Canons, I own two, an Orange Elph 100HS and the better S110. I have owned much larger Digital as well as Medium Format Film Cameras.

My view ( or take ) on headphones is that they are Dopamine activation devices. Since I'm a bit of an addict on these things and would like to "manage" my addictions, I've limited myself to the Sennheiser HD580/600/650 level. I love the HD800 and feel that "Eargasm" that Tyll talks about, the HD800 might be too addictive.

Still:
I feel compelled to own the intricate renderings experience being reported about these Elears & Utopia, plus, I'd love to own something French. The Focal people have been Siren calling me for quite some time. The Focals seem to be "Future proof" in that they are so amazingly efficient. The future, I see, is our Phones being our Hi-Fi system. ( I realize the iPhone 7 will not have a headphone jack ) Seems like a little DAC ( Mojo ) will suffice for all things musical.

With the Economic Crash of 2007 nearly 10 years behind us, I'm noticing a flood of technological advancements arriving. It has always taken a decade for Economic Bubble burst recoveries, it's about time to expect wonderful things, again! ( except for Greece, I suppose ).

Just today I'm investing in PEX expansion tubing systems for my home renovation. I've taken up plumbing as "one more hobby". I'm buying the Milwaukee M12 Pex expansion tool and a range of 1/2" and 3/4" tubing & fittings from Supply House. com. I just ( 4 days ago ) failed to properly solder up copper for a laundry sink installation, darn stuff keeps leaking. ( although I thought I knew how to solder )

Bon Vivant,

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I’m gobsmacked by the capabilities of the 80D. Even the photos I take with my ageing Sigma lenses are vastly improved, and the camera can do just about anything. I can’t imagine how anyone new to photography could easily get to grips with tech like this: I’m used to DSLRs, but the leap to the 80D was huge - even after owning it for a couple of weeks I’m still finding new facets.

I think you’re right about the iPhone 7 et. seq. being the new hifi. It’s an obvious direction to go after 4K video.

Admission: I bought a Cambridge DAC for my 5K iMac, the relevant software and a couple of my favourite albums in HD. I am sorry to admit that I couldn’t hear much difference – the money would have been much better spent on even better headphones !

My latest (rather enforced hobby) has been Mac networking (that’s using ethernet, wifi and Static IPs not socialising with fellow Apple fans). I managed to terminate both ends of a Cat5e cable the other day – something which gave me an inordinate amount of pride.

Sad really...

Jack

tony's picture

I have em too.

I'm happy (and staying) with 16/44.1

Tony in Michigan

IridiumEagle's picture

I would be curious to hear the vendor's precautions around the use of beryllium in the tweeters. Beryllium is a neurotoxin, so I guess I was a little surprised to hear it was being used in headphones.

Many speakers with beryllium tweeters carry warnings that if the tweeters are shattered you will be inhaling toxic dust. Shattering can apparently be triggered by simply overloading some speakers (e.g.
http://audiokarma.org/forums/index.php?threads/beryllium-in-speakers-is-... (See the NS2000 reference on this page)
Once in your body, beryllium cannot be removed.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beryllium

In the product manual, does Focal state if you have to do anything special in the event that you drop this headphone or your child puts it in its mouth, etc.?

tony's picture

There had to be a catch, darn.

I suppose you present good, sound reasoning for settling on the Alum. Coned Elear.

If it takes a long time to kill ya, it still might be ok, I'm quite old and on the Waiting list for Oakwood Cemetery.

I'll suspect the ultra compliant suspension provides the resolution improvements, not the Dome material type, these things easily respond to less than 1hz. breath movements.

I've used Beryllium in instrumentation diaphragms , it's pretty hard to fatigue it, it's kinda springy as I recall, very reliable.

If you are correct ( I have no reason to think you're not ) these Utopia phone packagings will come with Health warning stickers , just like we have for Cigarettes and Booze and Garden pesticides. ( and most children's toys, can't forget the children ).

Thanks for the warning, hmm, Audio bad for health reasons, who'd of thought. ( other than the many ProAudio folks that went deaf )

Tony in Michigan

Josuah's picture

May I suggest looking at impulse response measurements, specifically the amplitude of the initial positive and negative signals relative to each other, for depth. And channel separation / crosstalk and maybe acoustic phase for width. Punchy might be exposed via multi-tone THD measurements and impulse response decay.

Elen Kras's picture

Great review!

Elear vs HD700?
And we are still waiting full review hd700;)

AllanMarcus's picture

The HD700 is bad. Review complete.

Phoniac's picture

Fully agree.

Elen Kras's picture

Bad, but only for bassheads or for 1500+$ category.

In my opinion so many people think that they are bad is because they listening them right out the box or unheated.I am listening my pair of hd700 for more then 200 hours, I've seen how they have changed.

Harshness sometime, a bit...is the only my complaint, but overall they are amazing, impossible to find anything better it same price category(opened headphones, and it mean that you just can't find more natural sounding headphones at this price point)
Very musical, positive sound(enough dark when it need), lightweight, beautiful design, very comfortable, easy to drive.Bass is enough for any music style or movie.

AND, I think that there is no such thing as a flat frequency response.Flat is good only for studio.Because when we focus on something , especially for a long time , it becomes louder and more detailed.Usually we are more concentrating on vocals, that's why hd700 hole in the midrange , they did it on purpose because in the real world it is the only way to achieve a flat frequency response.Elear and Utopia not flat.Maybe in studio.But never when you are listening music, especially for long time.And I think that people think too much about the details , but in reality we are not so focused on the music that it plays a role, usually when listening we think about something , doing something.therefore 99 % of the time we do not notice the details of which are paying the extra $ 1000 +.That is why hd700 overall is the best headphones in a world.simply they have everything you need , they are balanced in all aspects , and in sound and design .270 grams!You just can't find better headphones for extended listening.These comfortable that you forget about them.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Gotta say...no, they're just bad.
Elen Kras's picture

They are just not for your taste.Headphones are not only about the truth...They are about character too, about pleasure.!I will never buy headphones that reveal the truth!They are all bad, because most of music is bad because of bass(even my favorite artists - massive attack, nin, underworld).You love bass, I hate bass.And I love exaggerated highs of hd700, a lot of light , positivity , purity , energy , liveliness, love overall character, and how everything balanced, bass is never fighting with other frequencies, just amazing how musical they are.I don't care about what artist want to see in his track, I am only care about my taste, using hd700 I change the frequency of my favorite music to my taste.Elear is bad for me, and UGLY(especially Utopia),and weigh too much.The wall of fame is about your personal taste.I searched among all headphones and I chose hd700.Because of character, and they truthful but where !I! need.Beatiful, lightweight, easy to drive, bass is great from any source(try the same with hd650...)And when I watch movies I just making them much LOUDER - bass is incredible, very big and super clean.You forgot that HD700 made after hd800 and they are have that technology that even hd800 don't have.And yes, I forgot 0,03 % thd.Thx sennheiser.

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