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Review: Focal Utopia

An emblematic name in French hi-fi since its creation in 1979, Focal has helped shape the history of drivers and acoustic loudspeakers by introducing a number of groundbreaking innovations. In 2012, the Saint Etienne based brand commercialized the Focal Spirit One, its first venture into the headphone market and a resounding success. Building on this early achievement, along with 35 years of expertise in designing acoustic loudspeakers, Focal went on to introduce a pair of high-end hi-fi headphones: the Focal Utopia. Innovative, elegant and distinguished, this unique model eptiomizes the Focal sound by offering a wide soundstage, clarity and flawless neutrality.

Focal Utopia

The Focal Utopia is an open, over-ear model equipped with two 1.6” pure Beryllium drivers

Focal Utopia: presentation

The Focal Utopia is a hi-fi, over-ear, open model equipped with Focal’s proprietary, M-shaped, pure Beryllium transducers. Focal spent several months developing a wideband driver specially optimized for placement in close proximity to the listener’s ears. The brand’s engineers had a clear goal in mind: these headphones had to evoke the same sensations for the listener as one of Focal’s best speakers.

Le casque Focal Utopia est considéré par de nombreux magazines spécialisés comme le meilleur casque sur le marché.

The Focal Utopia is considered to be the best pair of headphones on the market by several members of the specialized press.

Focal Utopia: Beryllium driver

Needing to respond to a different set of constraints than those imposed upon an acoustic loudspeaker, Focal’s engineers designed a brand new transducer incorporating pure Beryllium, the same material used for the tweeters found on the Focal Utopia loudspeakers, themselves recipients of numerous awards from the international press. This extremely rigid metal offers the twofold advantage of ensuring an exceptional frequency response and significantly reducing distortion. In order to obtain an even sound wave over the very short distance between the driver and the listener’s ear, Focal’s engineers developed a driver with an M-shaped dome capable of meeting this challenge with aplomb. This driver is coupled with a single-layer coil, which is ultra-light despite its diameter–much larger than the average coil integrated into most headphones.

Vue éclatée du transducteur Focal à dôme M en Béryllium pur.

Exploded view of Focal’s proprietary M-shaped pure Beryllium driver

Each of the Focal Utopia’s earpieces is thus equipped with a truly high-end wideband driver capable of exploring the deepest lows and the most far-reaching highs. The brand indicates a frequency response ranging from 5Hz to 50kHz, perfect for listening to Hi-Res audio files. With a sensitivity rating of 104 dB for 1 mW of injected power and an impedance of 80 Ohms, the Utopia can be driven by a wide range of headphone amplifiers. Pairing the Utopia up with a relatively powerful headphone amplifier, such as the Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear, the Pathos Inpol Ear or the excellent Antelope Zodiac USB DAC, will ensure optimal results.

Focal Utopia: open design

The design of the Utopia’s earpieces necessarily takes into account the characteristics of the Beryllium drivers, which must be given ample room for expression, as well as the brand’s intention to eliminate distortion caused by ported systems used to enhance low frequency response. As such, the drivers are placed not within a shell, but within a sort of cage which allows air to freely circulate around them. Thanks to the absence of mechanical compression, the drivers oscillate unhindered and are no longer impaired by noise related to air circulation, unintended resonance or distortion.

Focal Utopia - Detail 02

When we took a look inside one of the Focal Utopia’s earpieces, we could clearly distinguish the metal acoustic grill lining the back of the headphones. The structure of each earpiece is optimized in order to ensure completely unrestricted airflow around and behind the driver.

A glimpse inside the earpieces is all it takes to get the full picture: we had a perfect view of the cradle ensuring completely unrestricted airflow around and behind the drivers.

Focal Utopia: carbon fiber and lambskin

The Focal Utopia’s Beryllium drivers are not their only innovative feature. The fruit of a far-reaching reflection on what it means to build a pair of reference headphones, the Focal Utopia offers unprecedented solutions in terms of comfort and adaptability in order to offer a perfect fit to all users. This begins with a headband composed of lambskin-lined carbon fiber: not only does the yoke slide seamlessly into the headband when positioning the earpieces higher or lower, it can also pivot toward the front or back to ensure superior coupling and a perfect fit regardless of the shape of the user’s head.

Focal Utopia - Liaison Arceau/Yoke

For the Focal Utopia headphones, the vertical rotation mechanism of each earpiece has been placed between the yoke and the headband. Composed of a single piece of carbon fiber, the yoke’s ergonomic design has been extensively studied in order to coincide harmoniously with the curves of the user’s head.

The asymmetrical attachment points connecting the yokes to the earpieces also respond to ergonomic guidelines: optimize pressure applied around the ears while respecting the natural curves of the user’s head. Greater wearing comfort is ensured thanks to the headband’s lambskin lining and the thick memory foam ear pads, themselves lined with lambskin and microfiber.

Focal Utopia: audiophile cable

As a manufacturer of acoustic loudspeakers, Focal understands the important role cables play in high-fidelity audio signal transmission. The Focal Utopia’s detachable cable is composed of OFC copper with a very low impedance rating in order to not limit the dynamic range or the bandwidth of the signal. The quality of the cable’s shielding (the cable sleeve is thick, although relatively flexible) guarantees protection from electromagnetic interference despite its length (3 m).

Focal Utopia - Detail 03

The Focal Utopia’s detachable balanced cable is composed of low impedance OFC copper. It integrates two shielded Lemo connectors and a self-locking bayonet system.

Focal Utopia: first impressions

Our first reaction was one of surprise, as the sheer weight of these headphones left us impressed and even wondering if we weren’t in for a bit of discomfort. Despite its carbon fiber headband, the Focal Utopia weighs in at 490 grams. Our doubts about comfort during long listening sessions were immediately put to rest: the headband and its thick ear pads, composed of lambskin-lined memory foam and microfiber, are very comfortable. Our ears enjoyed having a lot of room and didn’t heat up prematurely. The pressure applied to the head and the temples was evenly distributed thanks to Focal’s original approach to coupling the yokes with the headband–the asymmetry of the attachment points between the yokes and the earpieces allow the latter to pivot and thereby offer a better fit for the user. Despite its weight, the Focal Utopia offers true wearing comfort. Even more than certain models weighing 150 grams less!

What surprised us most, however, was being able to hear everything going on around us so well that we had the impression of not wearing headphones at all. The Focal Utopia was intentionally designed to not modify the user’s perception of ambient sounds. A wager won. Totally open, these headphones are specially designed to offer a superior listening experience in a calm environment, without the slightest hint of noise pollution.

Focal Utopia: test conditions

To put the Focal Utopia’s acoustic qualities to the test, we paired it with the Inpol Ear hybrid tube headphone amplifier manufactured by the Italian brand Pathos Acoustics and equipped with the optional HiDac EVO featuring a high-end ESS Sabre 9018K2M converter. Once connected to our computer via a USB Type-B port, the Inpol Ear allowed us to listen to online streaming services as well as CD-quality and HD (PCM and DSD) audio files.

Focal Utopia

A pair of Focal Utopia headphones next to a Pathos InPol Ear headphone amplifier.

Focal Utopia: listening impressions

The Focal Utopia, refusing to be a show-off, produces neither thunderous bass, nor artificially highlighted mids, nor strident highs. If the initial listening experience seems lackluster, this is doubtlessly because we have been conditioned to always expect more, notably from a model of this caliber. Yet this would mean forgetting that listening to music is often a question of respecting the boundaries between more and too much.

Doesn’t the task of a pair of hi-fi headphones come down to knowing how to become invisible in order to better serve the music? This is exactly where the Focal Utopia excels, as it delivers each track with troves of accuracy and precision, in addition to complete humility, and without ever adding or subtracting anything from the original recording.

As such, we noticed no sound coloration during our listening sessions. From vocal inflections to rythmic guitar effects and bass drum hits, each nuance is delivered with the appropriate level of intensity and total respect paid to the artist’s intentions. The listening experience–never physiological–is flawlessly authentic, with deep and truly nuanced lows which always find their rightful place. Vocals are reproduced with perfect accuracy and articulation, without ever seeming artificially projected. High frequencies are optimized to shed a clear, soft light on the track being played, without ever becoming excessively bright. Lastly, the sheer breadth of the soundstage offered by these headphones won us over each time we listened to them.

The Focal Utopia brings music alive in such a way that it literally surrounds the listener, just as it would if it were played by loudspeakers. We truly forgot we were wearing headphones. All the pleasure of a neutral, rich and detailed up-close listening experience, and none of the constraints typically associated with headphones. The Utopia is Focal’s indisputable tour de force.

This post is also available in: French

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François Richard

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