Final Impressions and Wall of Fame Adjustments for the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4

Whew, what a ride.

Summary of Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4 Evaluation Process
In my initial review of the Audeze LCD-4, I found the 4-8kHz region too subdued relative to the slightly excessive treble above, giving cymbals last "tang" of the fundimental and more "tizz" of the overtones.

In my initial review of the Focal Utopia I found it very much to my liking. I was placed on the Wall of Fame.

Subsequently, Bob Katz reviewed the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4 side-by-side and found the LCD-4 the sonically superior headphones.

He then gathered five audio professionals the evaluate these headphones and they too determined the LCD-4 superior.

After Bob's experiments, Focal asked if InnerFidelity could measure the Utopias used in the shootout to see if they were defective in some way. His evaluations also confused me because I thought the Focals clearly superior. I had Bob send me the headphones used in his shootout for measurements. Turns out, the pair used in my review and his shootout indeed did measure differently and in such a way that our disparate findings were understandable. Bob wrote about it in his Smoking Gun article.

I then had to find out which Utopia was representative of the currently produced product and measured numerous Utopias. I found that the pair I initially reviewed was not representative of current product; the pair used in Bob's evaluation was.

Additionally, it was found the LCD-4 Bob used in his efforts was faulty in one channel and the pair I reviewed had some modest tonal imbalances between channels. I think this likely added some confusion in evaluations.

I did try to get a number of LCD-4 samples (really wish I could have got a little help here, folks), but was only able to acquire one from Audeze as a know representative sample. Measurements follow:



In the above plots you can see that the representative headphone has nearly the same response in both channels. The headphone I reviewed is quite similar in the left channel, but the right channel has about 2dB more energy between 1-3kHz, possibly leading to the impression of more drop-off at 4kHz where I felt it had a problem. In the left channel of Bob's headphone the drop at 4kHz is less severe and also has a trough at 2kHz; the right channel has a significant;y lower peak at 3kHz. It is unknown whether it left the factory in this state; I find it more likely, given Audeze's QC practices, that this headphone suffered damage some time thereafter. His headphone also had significant distortion and is, in my mind known to be faulty and not representative of currently manufactured product.

All-in-all, I sadly think the InnerFidelity reporting on these headphones to date should be considered a poor representation of the quality of these products given these problems, though I would point out that the reporting is consistant and accurate given the actual performance difference between the particular samples tested.

Adjustments to the Articles and Wall of Fame (WoF)
As a result I will be adding editor's note at the top of the reviews here at InnerFidelity pointing to this post to notify readers. I will not be re-writing the reviews so as to leave a clear trail of investigation.

I will be leaving the Utopia on the WoF, and will add the LCD-4 to the Wall of Fame, though reservedly.

I find the Sonoma Model One clearly the most balanced of all headphone there, but its significant volume limitations cause it to have a serious flaw.

I find the Utopia to still be an excellent headphone, but a peak at 5kHz can be annoying and its bass extension isn't as good as the LCD-4. I did measure the representative sample (measurements), and also measured it with the Elear pads (measurements). I found that while it did tame the treble a bit, bass to extend to far into the mids and preferred the stock pads in this case.

The representative LCD-4 (measurements) did seem to have slightly less imbalance in the treble than the review sample did, and I found it's presence region more natural, but I still think it's a bit low in response at 4-7kHz. None-the-less, given the flaws of the other headphones I think it warrants a place along side the other offerings.

In my comparative listening I also included the HiFiMAN HE-1000 for completeness sake. While it's a very pleasant headphone, I find it does fall a bit short compared to the Focal, Audeze, and Sonoma offerings by being a bit too bright 4-8kHz. It will remain a WoF retiree.

As a double check I did ask Focal to send another Elear sample and found it to be substantially the same as the review sample (measurements here and here respectively). Though it does have a treble problem similar to the LCD-4, at 1/4 the price its value proposition remains strong in my view. No changes will be made to its review or position on the WoF.

Further Actions
I consider this case close for me, but for completeness I will be sending the representative samples to Bob Katz for his evaluation and further thoughts. I will also send the Sonoma Model One to include in his comparisons as I believe it's a more neutral headphone.

Focal has as yet not been able to locate the original review unit. If/when they do I will report further.

A Final Thought
Manufacturers producing $1000+ headphones need to recognize that improvements to beauty, comfort, and build quality, while attractive to consumers, also need proportionate improvements in sound quality. I've had a policy of finding and reviewing good headphones and not bothering to do negative reviews unless it was particularly news worthy, or the public needed to be warned off a popular headphone. In my mind any headphone over $1000 is automatically news worthy and I feel obligated to review the positive or negative when ever I am able.

I need to state very clearly that both Audeze and Focal have been extraordinarily helpful in this process. Perfection is a standard the no one can achieve. Though some faulty gear has been discovered, I continue to believe that both these manufacturers are of the highest quality, and will continue to be amongst the top headphone manufacturers.

Maybe's picture

Wow, that cherry-picked LCD-4 measures pretty well, especially the THD+noise plot is some of the best I've seen.
Nonetheless, these high-end headphones are pretty boring.

I'm a happy camper with the analytical POS that is the HD800.
The people at Sonoma aren't the only ones who can correct the messed up FR of their headphone with some DSP!

tony's picture

I've never heard of any audio product undergoing such meticulous scrutiny, other than from owners to J.D.Power

In the regular Audio World of Stereophile or TAS, a $4,000 piece of gear is lower mid-fi.

At the recent L.A.A.S. Audio Show a $4,000 item would probably be the entry level piece hardly worth noticing.

Has anyone ever been as accurately descriptive of any Phono Cartridge?, including those Ortofon PU's being handed out to exhibiters at the recent show?, much less a $22,000 Preamp or a boxy loudspeaker?

Katz, Tyll, JA are the Cream of the Crop

Tony in Michigan

crenca's picture

Wonderful work, even through the setbacks (such as not getting another LCD-4 to test).

For myself, I am sticking with my Elear despite its shortcomings because I can mitigate (but not erase) them through EQ, and the strengths are such a welcome contrast to the usual planar "sweetness" and "reluctance". I imagine the Utopia would even be an easier proposition, though the price does not justify it in my estimation - though that is a personal thing.

I would encourage you to re-think your stance on the LCD-4 and the WOF. I am not convinced it should be there, and I don't think you are either - go with your instincts on this one!

burnspbesq's picture

So a $4,000 expenditure is a roll of the dice due to unit-to-unit inconsistency? This is hardly an optimal state of affairs.

My eight-year-old HD 800 has no need to fear losing its place on my desk, I'd say.

MRC01's picture

A few folks mentioned the HD-800 and it looks similar to the Utopia across the spec sheet, perhaps even a touch better in FR linearity and impulse response. And the LCD-2 is similar to the LCD-4 across the spec sheet. That doesn't mean they sound the same, but it shows how objectively close you can get at a small fraction of the price.

Johan B's picture

Yeah but us consumers have not got the measuring equipment and then have to trust its a good one? Any product above say $100 should not have variation in production and should be built with 6 sigma confidence.

Dadracer's picture

While I do appreciate all the work you have done on this I am unable to understand how the Utopia which by your own measurement was not representative keeps it place on the WoF and without a retest. I guess though its your wall and your rules, but I think it is not a tenable position.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I did my latest auditions with a representative sample and not the original review unit---which I did think was better. Little spike at 5kHz can be a tad annoying.
vick_85's picture

This Utopic LCD-4 debacle is precisely the reason I've not bothered with any Audeze headphones till date, too much driver variation, QC issues etc. If I buy a flagship headphone I expect it to be PERFECT and that is not the case with the likes of Audeze, Hifiman or even Focal. Who knows the Focal Elear Focal sent was cherry picked or not.

I would say buy a HD800S and a Pass Labs HPA 1 or HeadAmp GS-X mk2 or a Violectric V281 for 4000$-5000$ and be happy rather than worry "that is your pride and joy really sounding like its supposed to." Throw a Gungnir Multibit or an Yggy in there if you want a high end DAC

From the HD800S article
"Editor's Note: When I first saw an increase in distortion of the HD 800 S over the HD 800, I wanted to make sure it wasn't just a problem with the one HD 800 S I had at hand. Neither Todd the Vinyl Junkie nor HeadRoom had any left, the U.S. PR rep had none either. I immediately went over to and asked for some help. Members TMoney and Dr. Higgs volunteered their new HD 800 S headphones, which I arranged to have shipped overnight. Upon receipt I did repeat my measurements and found these headphones to perform essentially identically to the pair I initially tested. My experience is that Sennheiser has great quality control with unit to unit variation being very low...but I did triple check, and my measurements for all three were very similar." This is what I want about a TOTL headphone, GREAT QC control.

Sennheiser's new flagship can't come soon enough.

Magoo's picture

When I listened to the Utopia's at the LA Can Jam ....they sound a little hot to me...not worthy of the hype I'd read about....the LCD 4 are so heavy they slide off my head when giving the the slightest look down....don't know how any of these can sell for $4k!

Tony in Michigan declaring JA cream of the crop??? You're joking right??? At the very least Tyll and Katz are consistent...that cannot be said for JA and most of the Stereophile rag

tony's picture

We won't get people like Tyll & Katz if we don't have people like them at the Top!

Besides, JA is a Recording Engineer, much like Katz.

I should've included HR & Steve G. & dissed the Analog nonesense.

Tony in Michigan

Hattrick15's picture


Given the headphones that you now know are consistent with currently produced headphones, can you post new EQ settings for the LCD-4 and Focal Utopia headphones?

That would be very helpful!

Sil's picture

Regular quality problems at this price level are unacceptable.

Imagine purchasing a Bugatti Chiron with a faulty motor or a Patek Philippe with a faulty seconds hand. Not going to happen.

audiofly5's picture

Stay away from overpriced Audeze products. They are not nearly worth the asking price. Audeze LCD2, LCD2rev2 and LCD3 are worst disappointments in my audio journey. (btw, LCD2 original is the best sounding of the 3) Simply not as good as other options at that price point. Channel imbalance at 4k asking price.. OMG.

Reticuli's picture

Seems like studying the variance of particular headphone production lines, as well as how susceptible to damage from ordinary wear, transit, and heat exposure, may be at least as important as frequency response, impulse response, distortion levels, and two square waves. Shocking that this is significantly at all, let alone with multi-thousand-dollar headphones. It also means subjective opinions on sound are severely downgraded in importance if two separate teams of experts thought defective headphones were essentially the best they'd ever heard.

ivanouk's picture

My Utopia doesn't have any bright side, maybe is one "Tyll Signature", dont know if that is good or bad, but I like how it sounds.
BTW when tried the Z1R I heard very clearly the zyngy treble with almost every record.