Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4 Current Measurements and Plans

[Editor's Note: Through a long and tedious process it was found that the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4 reviewed here at InnerFidelity in numerous articles were found to be not representative of currently manufactured product. This article is therefore not entirely indicative of our current impressions of this product. To get a complete understanding of our evaluation the reader should start with this summary article and work back through the articles leading up to our current understanding.]

Well, there's certainly been a whirlwind of calls and emails around the old InnerFidelity lab this week. I thought it would be a good idea to put a fine point on where we're at, and talk a bit about where we can go from here.

I reviewed the Audeze LCD-4, I liked it but felt the treble was weak 4-8kHz and too bright thereafter. I said this about the sound, "With the LCD-4, the initial mid-treble "tang" is suppressed some, and the subsequent higher frequency shimmer is more accentuated."

Then I reviewed the Focal Utopia, thought it was great, and put it up on the Wall of Fame. I did feel it was a little weak in the bass, however, and benefited from the extra umpf of Elear pads.

Then Bob Katz, of his own accord, decided to compare the Focal Utopia and Audeze LCD-4. He came to the conclusion that the Utopia was too bright. In the 5kHz to 8kHz section of his ratings table he said, "it sounds exaggerated, especially sibilance."

You can imagine my surprise as I read and edited his review for publication. Then he took it one step further and had a panel of experts weigh in on the two headphones. They basically agreed with Bob.

Bob and I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so he sent me the two headphones used in his shootout. I also got a second sample Utopia from Focal. I then measured these headphones and sent the spreadsheets off to Bob.

His analysis showed that the reason there was a subjective difference of opinion was that the two sets of headphones use were in fact different sounding. And furthermore, the subjective opinions of the reviewers actually matched the objective measurements of the headphones reviewed fairly well.

The Data Currently
In the comments of his "Smoking Gun" article, InnerFidelity readers asked for a better look at the measurements. For your viewing pleasure:

The following plots are the averaged (all five positions) raw frequency response plots for each ear of the headphones used. Bob's LCD-4 was measured three times on three different days; the Utopias twice, each on a different day.





I have also prepared a .pdf booklet of all the measurements. I'll note a couple of things:

The repeatability of measurements for the Focal Utopias seems rock steady. It does appear to me that the initial sample that I reviewed is about 5dB less bright than the following samples in the 3kHz to 10kHz area.

Measurement repeatability of the LCD-4 is not as good. Specifically, in Bob's headphone left ear measurements show a feature 1.5kHz-2.5kHz that appeared in only 2 of the 3 measurements.

Bob's headphone also shows a roughly 2dB channel imbalance 1.5kHz to 7kHz.

Future Actions
I'm not really sure how this is all going to play out, but...

We are arranging for shipment of the Focal headphones back to the factory for further testing. Focal will attempt to find the initial review sample I used, and will be measuring it as well. I've asked that if they find it I would like the opportunity to measure it again.

Audeze is working on getting me a few more samples of the LCD-4 but is currently out of stock. This may take a bit of time.

I called my good friends Todd Green at Todd the Vinyl Junkie and Jamey Warren at HeadRoom Audio, both of whom have offered up Utopia samples for measurement. Evidently, one of the Utopias may be from the very early run that my review pair was in; it'll be very interesting to see if it measures like my review pair. (Unfortunately, no LCD-4 available.) I should be getting those headphones in over the weekend and will have measurements next week.

Current Take-away
I think it's really important not to jump to any big conclusions here. As far as Focal goes, I think this is most likely a case of the Utopia's first production run just being slightly different than subsequent runs. This happens all the fact, I'd say it happens most of the time with most manufacturers. Given how close the two later Utopias match, I'm going to bet that Focal probably has better product repeatability than most. We'll see as time, and measurements, go on.

In my experience, Audeze has been on the march for better sound quality and reliability since day one, and have made significant and continuous improvement over time. It does appear to me that planar headphones (both magnetic and electrostatic) have the difficult problem of diaphragm tensioning that make them more prone to channel balance issues and "box of chocolates" production runs. So, while it doesn't shock me to see Bob's headphone might have a driver missmatch (note the distortion plots as well), it's also something I rarely see with Audeze headphones any more.

I'm going to try to get some more headphones in for measurement. I'm going to make sure I have at least one sample of each that appears to be representative. Then I'm going to listen...and I'll tell you what I hear. I'll also probably send them off to Bob because...well, Bob Katz.

tony's picture

Geeeezzzzz, everything you and Katz work together on seems like a "headphone" World Series where we all end up Winning !

Thanks for the hard work

Tony in Michigan

--------------'s picture

"Audeze is working on getting me a few more samples of the LCD-4 but is currently out of stock."
The official website doesn't appear to be out of stock. Sounds to me like they're preparing some top notch units for you.

detlev24's picture

It certainly would be better to get review samples from resellers [e.g., demonstration units] or directly from customers, instead of a controlled batch from the manufacturers; but I understand this is difficult to accomplish.

coldassault's picture

I thought the exact same thing reading the smoking gun article. There is enough at stake for these manufacturers that would warrant for preceding measurements on their part to send you the most consistent units possible... It happens all too often that manufacturers try to influence lab results (I'm thinking of the pesticide Round-up getting banned since this tempering leaked out as it could be carcinogenic). Here the manufacturers don't even need to interfere with other instances, they can very well make you see what they want you to see just by them holding all the cards when picking out the review samples.

coldassault's picture

Edit: Roundup is a herbicide ;-)

wiinippongamer's picture

"It does appear to me that planar headphones (both magnetic and electrostatic) have the difficult problem of diaphragm tensioning that make them more prone to channel balance issues and "box of chocolates"

Nah, we don't see such imbalances any more pronounced than dynamic driver headphones with vintage orthos, STAX or even hifiman. Audeze is a plain negligent company that sells $4k headphones with 3db channel imbalances in the midrange.

JVG's picture

Thanks for the update and the more complete measurements. Thanks also for the serial numbers on some of them. Did you record the serial number of your original Utopia sample? Would be very useful to see that to compare with the others. Also, what do you make of the other measurement differences between the original sample and the subsequent ones? For example, there is a significant difference in the power handling numbers and differences in impulse response and distortion pattern, as well as square wave differences, though I assume most of that difference is due to the frequency response plot. But adding these differences up points to quite a different product compared to the original sample you reviewed. Now, perhaps you're right that this amount of difference is not unusual or maybe is even typical between very early units and later full production units. But if so, then what is the value of a review of a very early unit? I don't recall seeing a disclaimer about this sort of thing---perhaps the moral is that reviews should wait until a full-production run sample is available.

I will also second the concern regarding Audeze's "sold out" response and the risk of getting samples directly from them when they are fully aware of this very sticky situation. Of course it would be ideal never to get samples directly from manufacturers who know those exact samples will be reviewed and measured, but I understand it may not be practical to do it any other way in general. But in this case, it seems particularly important to remove any doubt about the representativeness of future samples.

jherbert's picture

So you pay more and get more only if you're lucky. Any word on replacements for units that do not perform as promised?

Seems an issue with quality management, or the lack of. It's amazing that this high priced stuff is not manufactured in a way that would guarantee constant quality.

This happens most of the time when manufacturing is not part of the design. I bet the Elears do not show that pattern. When you churn out higher volume you simply cannot afford that sort of deviation.

Seems one can never be sure if one gets a unit comparable to the ones reviewed.

Dadracer's picture

I think the Utopias should be removed from the WOF pending further enquiry

Visigoth's picture

Knee-jerk reaction, much? Or do you have an ax to grind? The Utopias are top-of-the-line. Nothing changes that, unless a much superior headphone comes out, which so far hasn't materialized.

Dadracer's picture

I'm perfectly relaxed thanks for asking. No axes to grind and I would have said the same about the LCD4 but its not on the WOF so I can't. The Utopias are very good but one of a number of TOTL headphones which are equally good or equally compromised depending on your tastes. So for some folks there will be superior headphones out there.....for them.
Anyway none of that changes the issue if the QC on these top priced headphones is not as good as it should be which surely must be the key point?

Peragulator's picture

From a consumer standpoint this situation overall is unacceptable (...and very unfortunate). Having said that, your openness towards the reviews, product variances/discrepancies and additional testing is commendable . Thank you.

coldassault's picture

I can't help but being curious about TOTL headphone measurements being weighted to the Katz-Harman curve. Clearly, he's very much into the matter... As unfinished as his curve may be at this moment, it could very well be the best curve at hand at this point in time. Could be very interesting to put some Katz corners into perspective by letting us watch through the same glasses.

Bob Katz's picture

As proud as I am to hear you mention my name :-). I'm definitely not confident enough in the Katz-Harman curve to publish it or let it out in the wild. For example, I need to see how the curve works with the LCD-4s as I've only used it on the LCD-X's so far. Furthermore the curve ONLY applies to Tyll's measurement jig and all of these jigs vary somewhat. And a dB difference in some frequency ranges makes a big perceptual difference.

Then how do we deal with amplifier differences? I have a wonderful amplifier hear for review whose harmonic structure is "warm" and I feel the need for a bit more high end as a result.

So please wait till I'm more comfortable with my curve before I let it out into the wild.


Bob K.

pbarach's picture

If headphones at this price point vary so dramatically in their measurements, how applicable are any published headphone measurements to a set of headphones that we might buy? And along the same lines, how reliable are published speaker measurements.

Bob Katz's picture

1) Sold out? When I ordered my LCD-4 not too long ago.... they had to build it from scratch. It took 2-3 weeks to get it. So it's very possible that they are perennially "sold out" which means that they build it from scratch and keep very few units on hand. I'm not surprised considering the expense of this headphone, if the LCD-4 is ALWAYS or almost always built from scratch.

2) Yes, we've opened a can of worms here! So let's try to be as calm as possible till all the facts are sorted out. Let's not assume anything yet. For example, we do not know the exact amplitude of the left-right channel situation until we can reconcile some questions about the HATs measurement technique versus the probe which Audeze uses to measure their headphones.

We need to garner some more data, both objective and subjective

Let us not forget that neither I nor any of my expert listeners noticed a left-right mismatch in the upper mid (5k approximately) region in the LCD-4. I did mention that when I get the headphone back I would listen very carefully to see if I could detect it, however minutely.

3) It's possible Tyll will send my LCD-4 back to Audeze for their own re-measurement, with my permission. To be perfectly fair to the manufacturer. And we need to be perfectly fair to the manufacture, we need to reconcile our own listening, Tyll's measurements and Audeze's measurements as well, try to piece together as much truth as possible.

4) Audeze points out that the HATS technique is more prone to sealing issues and Tyll points out above that sometimes he didn't see the left-right issue, which could easily then be due to sealing. I have trouble believing that 5-8 kHz could be affected by seal but I think that both Tyll and Audeze are on the case to define the variables. Please stand by, more to come. Until then, please do not leap to conclusions, file this one under "to be resolved".

5) Furthermore, in preliminary conversations with Audeze, they have told us that they did not measure any left-right discrepancy and would have rejected the headphone if not. While this seems to contradict reports from the field, I want us to know which reports, from whom, what provenance.

6) Who's got an LCD with left-right discrepancies? Please report. Let us know whether you heard the issue yourselves, heard about it from measurements or just from hearsay. In this case we need to hear it from primary sources: a) from your own ears, or b) one of Tyll's measurements.

Thanks! The game's afoot. --- Bob

thefitz's picture

... to have Tyll measure their cans and have them in an Innerfidelity article. Why not put out a classified ad looking for Utopias and LCD-4s on Head-Fi? Likely they're all, erm, "broken in" too (which is the first thing a fanboy will complain about if you besmirch a beloved can).

hanshopf's picture

I guess it was me who registered differences in Utopia samples and stated so on this page. Let me repeat what I wrote on March 19 commenting in Katz episode 14:
"With these highly resolving headphones even slight product variances can fundamentally change one's impressions. I listened to four pairs of Utopia (three of them at the same day and two of them side by side, all of them with the same amp and music) and all of them sounded differently, ranging from harsh and loosely defined to very well grounded and spot-on neutral. They even differed in size with different clamping pressure on my (small) head. I also had a listen to LCD-4, but obviously had a "bad" sample of that one. Conclusion: no end to the debate... ."
Seems as if the debate has just begun. I am bit surprised about the reactions in the community. At all these headfi- and SBAF-meets etc where people would have access to more than one sample of Utopia or LCD-4 (Dealers!! - Anything to say??), they did not notice anything? Really? Wow, that's somehow disillusioning. If people do not hear these things, then it shouldn't really matter anyway one might say. Swarm intelligence may not be as sensitive as I'd have guessed.
But ok, probably the people who noticed just did not write about it. Then, luckily, I'd be mistaken of course and would stand corrected. Whatever the reasons: let's all try to be more critical and not to shy back with own opinions even if they seem to differ from what other people hear. That's also criticism directed to myself!

una's picture

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sszorin's picture

Did you pay Tyll for your advertising spot ?

windcar's picture

Time to remove Utopia from the wall of fame. When I first heard the Utopia, I always thought it is too shouty, and it definitely have an unnatural peak somewhere in the high mids/low treble region. I wonder if Focal intentionally send Tyll a modified version to skew his review. If this is the case, it is considered an act in fooling consumer and this should not be tolerated.