The first time I heard the Focal Utopia was at a hi-fi fair, where I realised that I was getting the best sound of the fair among all the super-expensive stereos. That’s how fantastic they sounded!
As I became more familiar with them, on my own equipment and with my own music collection, I was even more surprised at how much magic it is possible to conjure out of a music recording. With details I hadn’t heard before, and with unrivalled dynamics! Here all the stops were completely removed, and the accelerator pedal was on the floor. Complete and merciless control, with amazing resolution and detail.
That was in 2017, and since then, the French speaker manufacturer (yes, Focal is still that to me) has launched quite a few high-end headphone models. But none of them like Utopia.
After several great Focal headphones came on the market with new diffraction patterns both inside and out, such as the closed Celestee and Stellia with their large circles and Clear Mg with its honeycomb pattern, Focal has seen a need to upgrade Utopa as well. Not least to fit in with the new ear cups in terms of design. The new 2022 edition has therefore received the new beehive pattern of ClearMg.
Why hexagonal pattern?
The grid on the outside of the cups is pierced by hexagonal holes in a pattern of gradually increasing and decreasing sizes depending on which way you look at them. This is to both reduce resonances and shift them to more natural frequencies for the ears.
The airy grille provides both rigidity to the structure and maximum airflow to preserve dynamics as much as possible. This is also why closed headphones will never, ever sound as dynamic as open ones.
Lambskin pads and carbon fibre fork
The cups are suspended from a fork – or a yoke, if you will. It is now made from moulded, recycled carbon fibre. The fibres never lay down the same, giving each set of headphones a different pattern. It gives a matte, slightly raw look, but it’s still very elegant – and super cool!
The cushions are made of memory foam, covered with perforated lambskin. This way you can wear the headphones for hours on end without compromising on comfort.
The headband is also covered in genuine leather, so there’s is no compromise on the finish. All materials have been chosen for their light weight and high comfort. Even so, the new Utopia weighs 490 grams, just like its predecessors.
Real speakers – on the head
The goal with Focal Utopia was to give us a pair of headphones that sound like a pair of high-end speakers – mounted on the head. It succeeded to a large extent, at least as far as it can be done. No passive headphones can project a sound image in front of you like a pair of speakers, but Utopia gives the impression of a slightly narrower width in the sound image compared to some others, which means that you still get a little more sense of a pair of speakers in a room. Focal also believes that the 2022 version is even closer to that goal.
Custom beryllium drivers
Focal only uses their own drivers in their headphones, and in the new Utopia, the choice of material has fallen on beryllium. Just like in its predecessor. The same M-shape, when you look at the diaphragm in profile, provides extra rigidity and should absorb any resonances.
But there are differences. The coil is lighter than before, with a refined alloy of copper and aluminium. Together with an ultra-thin suspension, this should give us the lightest and fastest driver Focal has ever made.
The entire design was developed and hand-built at the factory in Saint Etienne, France.
The new Utopia comes with both a 1.5 metre cable with combined 3.5 and 6.3mm connectors, and a 3 metre long 4-pin XLR cable for balanced operation. Which in effect means that the right and left channels have separate earths rather than shared. This prevents some of the audio signal from travelling between the channels via ground, and therefore the soundstage will almost always feel more separated and wider with a balanced cable.
A carrying case is included for easy and safe transport, and a leather-lined storage box emphasises the exclusivity.
Focal Utopia 2022: Comfort and ease of use
Like most Focal cups, the Utopia 2022 sits on my head like a dream. A spring system squeezes lightly against the jawbone on the underside of the ear, but not so much that it’s uncomfortable. More than anything else, it ensures a firm fit, which also takes some of the weight off the head. 490 grams is a significant weight, after all, but I wouldn’t say the headphones feel heavy.
The well-padded, good cushions also make it quite comfortable for spectacle wearers, even if the glasses are then held firmly in place.
The sensitivity of 104 dB is generous, and with an impedance of 80 ohms, the headphones can easily be used with a valve amplifier, for example. These nearly always have a low damping factor, which can lead to increased distortion with low impedance headphones. Planar magnets, for example, should be used with caution. But the Utopia works really well with, for example, the McIntosh MHA 200 – although I can think of many other better partners.
Sound that makes time stand still
In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, you need to relax. And with the Focal Utopia on your head, it’s almost as if time stands still.
Vikingur Olafsson’s interpretation of Brahms’ Seven Fantasies (Op. 116) is so beautifully and nuanced that the grand piano sounds like waves breaking in the sea. Each note rings with complex textures. Layer upon layer emerges, and even the faintest touches are depicted with lightning-fast transients at the micro level. Then the notes are sung out in their entirety until they finally die out in the noise floor of the recording. It’s so beautiful, so beautiful.
Keith Jarrett’s piano on Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, is recorded from a greater distance, so you get more of the room, and the piano itself sounds darker. But here the soul is ‘in the walls’ and you can just close your eyes and dream you’re there.
Rock works like a charm, too. Time from the seminal Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon may not sound as modern as it did 50 (!) years ago, but boy, does it rock! At times it can sound a little sharp, with a little too much energy in the lower treble – Utopia being a very telling example – but the air guitar and rock foot are still going strong.
New vs. old Utopia
The original Utopia headphones had lightning-fast transient response, revealing details layer by layer. But they could also be overly sharp with the ‘wrong’ music material and sound source. They revealed a lot in the lower treble range and could occasionally be a little ear-piercing.
The new Utopia model feels more relaxed in that part of the high frequency range, but I do not feel that this is at the expense of the sonic delights. Here you still get legendary short start/stop time on transients, and the details just pour out!
You don’t get quite as close to the instruments here as with its predecessor, but at the same time you’re drawn more into the music, rather than it being forced upon the listener – albeit with a surgical precision I’ve hardly ever heard before.
I have to go by memory here, but I certainly feel that the new model is somewhat milder than the original. And although the bass in both the earlier and the new version is reproduced with a whole lot of timbre, I recall it being less full-bodied in its predecessor.
Thrives with ‘full-bodied’ amplifier
Not that the bass is particularly fat in the new headphones either, but it goes all the way down to the deep bass and is experienced as significantly deeper than, for example, HD 800 S. It is a really good match with Auralic Taurus, which has a warm glow in bass and midrange, but I would also think that it sounds great with McIntosh MHA 150.
For the test I’ve borrowed the Naim Uniti Atom HE, which is also a fabulous amplifier with the new Utopia. The headphones respond really well to the speed and bass response of the amplifier.
Another amplifier that really brings out the dynamics in these headphones is the Burson Soloist 3X GT. It’s just insane! Just remember that the gain needs to be set to low, otherwise you’ll hear a hissing noise floor.
Moderate stereo width
The stereo width isn’t the widest I’ve heard, and if you own a pair of Sennheiser HD 800 or 800 S, for example, you’ll find that the sound is narrower from the Focal Utopia. The music is quite close here. Now, the Sennheisers are perhaps also the headphones on the market that have the largest soundstage, so it’s not surprising. But the Focal’s are also more moderate than e.g. Audeze LCD-5, which costs about the same as Utopia.
I have seen some reviewers write about the new Utopia that the sound image is more in front of the listener than inside the head. I don’t quite recognise that from my experience. It’s still a pair of headphones, and I never feel that the sound image is in front of my face. Face it – it’s all in your head!
Big, lovely midrange
On the other hand, the Utopias have a big and beautiful midrange. The vocals come out better in the midrange, with more chest sound than with the HD 800 S. Here the new Utopia is more in the league of the Audeze LCD-5. At the same time, there is more body in the bass here than with the LCD-5 – and especially than with the HD 800 S.
But while the new Utopias are a little more relaxed in the highs than the original model, they’re still slightly more prominent than both the LCD-5 and the HD 800 S. And in terms of amplifier, they probably pair better with the neutral Sennheiser HDV 820 amplifier than the original Utopia, but the more voluminous Naim Uniti Atom HE does a better job.
The latest version of the Focal Utopia is high-end at your fingertips, with a build quality and comfort that’s truly top-notch. And with a sound to match. The dynamics and precision are extreme, there is plenty of air here, and the timbre is so clear that a lot of other things become grey and boring in comparison.
The headphones have had some of the sibilance from the predecessor sanded away, which could be razor sharp at times. There is still a bit, though, so you still need to be careful with music with extremely high energy around 3-4 kHz. It can also be beneficial to hook them up to an amplifier with a warm, rich sound rather than one that’s clinical and cold.
With the right amplifier and good music recordings, the sound is simply golden.