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Focal Utopia Over-the-Ear Headphones Reviewed

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Focal-Utopia.pngFocal JMLab is a very well-respected audiophile-grade manufacturer of loudspeakers and headphones from France. The company's signature sound owes much to its use of pure Beryllium drivers. Focal makes the only headphones that use pure Beryllium, which is the highest of any known metal in stiffness-to-weight ratio--allowing for resonances to over 50 kHz. The extended high-frequency response contributes to clarity, depth of soundstage, and transient response without losing low-frequency bass in the process. Indeed, the Utopia headphones' frequency response is listed at 5 Hz to 50 kHz.

Beryllium's low mass returns the diaphragm to "zero" extremely quickly. This is how these headphones respond to transients so incredibly fast, which equates to many positive attributes, especially in the realm of musicality. Transitions between loud and soft and even silence following an orchestral horn section blast (for example) will challenge your ears' abilities and, when done right, will place you right inside the performance itself. Focal's Utopia headphones are the best example of this I have heard. Overall, I would sum up what I hear from these headphones as "natural," and that's one of the highest compliments I can offer.

So why aren't all loudspeaker and headphone manufacturers using Beryllium? Beryllium is strong, lightweight, and...rare. That makes it expensive, which contributes to the Utopia's $3,999 asking price. Beryllium vapor is known to be hazardous to humans, so great care must be taken in the manufacturing process, which also adds to the expense. A pamphlet comes with these headphones that references this toxicity. So, am I taking my life in my hands by handling, indeed wearing, a known toxic substance? From the Focal-provided pamphlet: " ... the hazardousness of the Beryllium mainly results from its inhalation, ingestion or contact in vapor form or microparticles." Wikipedia confirms this, so it must be true. My conclusion is, it's probably riskier getting out of the bathtub.

Focal-Utopia-2.jpgThe Design
The Utopia headphones have an open-back circumaural design. Environmental noise is not being attenuated, so a quiet listening space is recommended. These are not meant for mobile use. (Focal offers the $249 Listen headphones for on-the-go use.)

The Utopia's materials are of high quality. Adjustability is simple and effective. The ear cups rotate inward and outward, towards and away from your head, and there is a nice range of travel upward and downward between the headband and carbon-fiber yokes that hold the ear cups. They do not rotate front to back by purposeful "purity of design," as Focal puts it. Comparing the Utopia design to that of my reference Sennheiser HD 800 S over-the-ear headphones ($1,699.95), which do rotate front to back just a few degrees, I really can't say whether or not the lack of front-to-back rotation is better or worse, as both headphones fit well and are comfortable. I have tried some Sony MDR Series headphones that rotate quite a bit more than a few degrees, and they do feel floppy and become less comfortable over time--perhaps this is what Focal is referring to.

The lambskin leather headband is padded, and the ear cushions are made of a combination of lambskin leather and perforated fabric. The inner part of the cushion is composed of a perfect 50/50 ratio of lambskin leather (for diffusion) and fabric (for absorption). They conform very well to all the crenellations that vary from ear to ear. The four-meter Oxygen Free cables are shielded, extremely low impedance (less than 90 milliohm), and very robust--with Neutrik stereo jack connectors.

Focal presents the Utopia headphones to you in a beautiful box, which seals magnetically. Precise foam cutouts cradle the headphone itself, while room is reserved for the cable in a separate compartment. It's nice enough to be left out on a table in your listening room, to be sure.

Listening Sessions
I chose "Holst--The Planets" (London Philharmonic, Boult 24/96 HD FLAC file) as the first piece of music for my inaugural listening session. I love the entire seven-movement piece for many reasons--chief among them is how the music makes me feel when I'm not thinking about dynamics, transients, and upper-, mid-, and lower-frequency range transitions...anything other than just letting the emotion of the moment simply take me wherever it may. The experience for me starts with selecting the right combination of what I have available to get maximum impact from the composition and performance. My reference signal path varies from piece to piece and even depends on my particular mood at that moment. For The Planets, I usually rely on my tube preamp with the aforementioned Sennheiser HD 800 S headphones, which made for an interesting comparison with the $4,000 Focal Utopia.

The first movement, "Mars, The Bringer of War (Allegro)," builds to a crescendo at 1:25, and this has long been my benchmark for dynamic range, resolution, impact, and ultimately an intimate connection to the piece and the composer. The Focal Utopia delivers and does so effortlessly. For those of you who may have read my prior reviews, I like to answer the question, "Did it make me smile?" So as not to disappoint my legion of readers, yeah it did. After just the first piece of music with these headphones, I was excited to listen to more.

Next up was the track "Alone" from Don Ellis' album Electric Bath. Amazing. From the opening bass line to the band entrance, I was transported to a small jazz club in some exotic land. The precise, percussive bongo drums are on feature at their entrance. Listen to the breath preceding the second phrase of the flute, and you'll know why Beryllium makes a difference. How can you not be moved by the crescendo at 1:36? That's dynamic range! At 3:13 there is a great trumpet solo, and this is where the extended high-frequency range reveals impressive tonality without ever getting harsh, which lesser headphones (and loudspeakers) can struggle with and sound shrill. These headphones reminded me of why I love this track so much.

I was wondering how the Utopia headphones would handle denser music in the rock-and-roll genre. I tried several tracks that are midrange heavy, including some of the poster children from the Wall of Sound era: "Street Fighting Man" from The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet; "Don't Bring Me Down" from Electric Light Orchestra's Discovery; and "River Deep Mountain High" from Ike and Tina Turner. The Utopia handled these thick, midrangey tracks as well as any headphone I've ever auditioned, actually making this my new standard for these challenging pieces.

Another piece I chose for my listening session with these headphones was "Be-Bop-A-Lula" by Gene Vincent from the Rockabilly Rules compilation. Intimate is the word that came to mind. It felt like I was right there. What more can you ask?

High Points
• Focal's Utopia headphones simply sound amazing. There is nothing between you and the music. They offer natural, effortless re-creation of what the composer, the musicians, and the producer intended.
• The headphones' materials are ultra-high-quality and the look, feel, and fit are excellent compared even with the most high end of headphones.

Low Points
• Before long, the Utopia headphones became warm, owing to the seal of the cushion to the ear. The memory-foam ear pads appear perforated, but in actual use they do not allow for any real airflow.
• The Utopia is a substantial headphone, leaning toward the heavier side. It weighs in at 490 grams, which is appreciably more than the Sennheiser set (330g). However, after a 90-minute listening session, I never felt any fatigue or discomfort from caliper pressure.
Focal-Utopia-cable.jpg• One minor complaint about attaching the headphone cable. Attachment at the ear cup is via a Lemo self-locking bayonet system that requires lining up the dots and pushing them until a click is heard (and felt) to make a positive, secure connection. Focal uses the method of aligning red dots to properly insert the cable to the ear cups so as not to damage the two pins inside the collar on the cable connector, which is fine--but why not use a red dot for the right side and a blue dot for the left? Instead, one must look for the black-on-black "L" and "R" on the cable and the silver-on-black "L" and "R" on each side of the inside headband. Hey, I said it was a minor complaint, but these are $4,000 headphones.

Comparison and Competition
JPS Labs' Abyss AB-1266 ($4,495) is the audiophile can that "juices and goes to the gym" six days a week. They are a stellar performer, to be sure. If you like your bass to feel like you've been punched in the stomach, then these are the headphones for you. They certainly have all the rest as well: fast transient response, high dynamic range, and detailed resolution. But some may feel all that bottom end detracts from the nuances of the mids and highs.

Sitting precisely at the same $4,000 price point is the LCD-4 from Audeze. You won't find pure Beryllium here, but you will find planar magnetic technology. It simply can't be a coincidence that they are the nearly the same price...and that they are each amazing while getting to the same pretty place via different audio paths.

Comparing these $4,000 headphones to the $1,700 Sennheiser HD 800 S, I could not help but think this is truly a golden age for audiophiles. You can't go wrong with the HD 800 S; but if you have the money, I would say the AB-1266, LCD-4, and the Utopia are worth it. They have another level of clarity. So aside from price, your choice between the Abyss AB-1266, Audeze LCD-4, and Focal Utopia will come down to personal preference. While they each handle all genres of music wonderfully, I would lean toward the AB-1266 and LCD-4 for rock-and-roll and the Utopia for classical (I call it a three-way tie for jazz). At the end of the day, when you tune out the rest of the world, any of these headphones will simply take you wherever you want to go.

Assuming the rest of your signal path is looked after, does it matter if the final stage (your headphones) reaches above and below your hearing range? There are papers and papers that discuss this in depth with varying conclusions; but, in my experience, yes it does. The Focal Utopia headphones push the limits at 5 Hz to 50 kHz, and they do so musically, naturally, and with great impact. Along with these otherworldly frequency response specs, the fast transient response and high dynamic range make these among the best-sounding headphones ever. My recommendation? Put some pure Beryllium in your portfolio!

Additional Resources
• Check out our Headphones category page to read similar reviews.
Focal Announces Dome Flax 5.1.2 Speaker System at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Focal Sopra No.1 Bookshelf Speaker Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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