In its name, the Focal Utopia makes a bold promise: a utopia is a state of being as perfect as can be imagined. Released more than four years ago, the beryllium driver Focal Utopia is, without a doubt, an incredible achievement in headphones, and priced at $4000, it’s clear that striving for perfection is not cheap. Despite its age, the Utopia has remained one of the top rated and most popular headphones in its class. Let’s take a deeper look at what has made the Utopia a dream headphone for so many listeners for so long.
Build and Design
For the general look and feel of their headphones, Focal has clear design principles which are shared across their full line of headphones. But as you move up from the Elear (discontinued), to the Clear, with each step there are additional details, improvements in the materials and composition, until you reach the Utopia. The Utopia is unmistakably premium, with a mixture of carbon fiber, aluminum, and plastic for the frame, and with a comfortable cushioned leather headband and earpads.
The original packaging for the Focal Utopia was fairly bare, with just a fancy box, and a long and heavy cable. The updated 2020 package still comes in a fancy box, but now it includes a travel case, and some additional cables, very much like the package for Stellia. The included cable is thick and sturdy with a rubber coating. It uses proprietary connectors to connect to the headphones, so your options for replacing it are more limited than headphones like Clear.
In terms of weight and comfort, it weighs in at 490 grams, which is not light, but not particularly heavy for top of the line headphones. The weight is well distributed, and the band has a good amount of adjustment for various head shapes and sizes.
From the moment you press play, the biggest distinguishing features of the Utopia is its out of this world detail retrieval, and ability to present micro-detail to the careful listener. Every aspect of the headphone from the tuning to the soundstage seems carefully balanced to serve the absolute mind boggling amount of detail it delivers. The tuning is generally neutral, and while it will definitely give you tight, physical bass if the bass is present, the sub-bass feels slightly rolled off. Focal also has its signature impeccably tuned highs, which make a series of small cuts and elevations in the upper registers to deliver crisp detailed highs while remaining musical and pleasing to the ear.
The soundstage on the Utopia feels more like an intimate concert than a massive stadium. It also has a nice round feeling which presents as being about as wide as it is deep. The imaging is about as three dimensional and holographic as I’ve heard on conventional headphones, with an excellent sense of positioning, space, and separation.
“Somebody to Love” by Queen demonstrates many of the Utopia’s strengths. The fast response of the beryllium drivers captures the dynamics in Roger Meadows drumming, enabling listeners to pick up on techniques like cymbal chokes that are difficult to hear otherwise. The holographic imaging helps add a lifelike dimension to the choir and puts Freddie Mercury right in front. The incredible detail in the headphones, even reveals some flaws in the recording: at a couple of crescendos there is a noticeable distortion coming from the swells of the 100 man overdubbed choir. Throughout the song, almost every aspect of the headphones gets put to the test, and their performance is absolutely top of the line.
The Utopia also shines with heavier music. On Metallica’s “The Unforgiven,” the introductory acoustic guitars sound clear and natural, and when the bass and bass drum hits for punctuation, it’s powerful and physical. On the verses, the Utopia clarity and revealing nature helps you decode the heavy complex chords created by the guitar duo of James Hettfield and Kirk Hammett, and its dynamism and fast response deliver the raw energy of the performance.
Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” starts with the low rumble of the bass slowly builds layer upon layer until there’s a massive soundscape. The Utopia captures each layer and provides clear separation, delivering the entire piece without congestion or distortion. Even at its most complex points, the Utopia allows you to unpack each layer and pick out each component of the wall of sound. “Unfinished Sympathy” also provides a demonstration of the Utopia’s bass capabilities. While the low end is rolled off a little, it expertly captures the subtle shifts in the bass drum attack and provides a solid low thump when appropriate.
Sometimes headphones can “deliver” the music to you, while other times, it feels more like they’re delivering you into the middle of the music. Listening to “Tchfunkta” by Stanton Moore, I felt like I was dropped behind Moore’s drum kit in the middle of the stage. The sound of the kick drum and toms were so natural and physical, I could practically feel the drum heads bending and rebounding under the impact of the sticks and beaters. The bass was deep but clear, and the horns were just right – I could pick out every note and nuance of the performance, but they never felt sharp or harsh. The entire ensemble sounded lifelike and natural.
I did most of my testing using the Chord Hugo TT2, and it certainly made for an incredible pairing with the Focal Utopia. With its simple operation and incredible technological power under the hood, the TT2 doesn’t feel like another component in your stack, it feels like it’s clearing everything else out that might get between you and the music.
Comparison: Meze Empyrean
The Meze Empyrean is another favorite among top of the line headphones, but for different reasons. While the Utopia is renowned for its incredibly detailed, reference-like delivery, the Empyrean is a favorite for having a warmer, more musical delivery. To talk about the differences, I went back through some of the same reference tracks I listened to with the Utopia.
On “Tchfunkta,” the Empyrean doesn’t provide the same level of precision of the Utopia, but it provides significantly more physical impact from the drums, and better bass extension into the lower registers. The Empyrean also has a larger soundstage which creates a greater sense of space between the instruments, while with the Utopia the space feels smaller, but the imaging is more precise. Similarly, listening to Massive Attack, the Empyrean keeps the layers coherent – though without quite the level of clear detail and separation provided by the Utopia – but also creates a sense of the bass just boring a hole straight through your brain. In both cases, the Empyrean would be the clear choice for grooving along to the tunes, while the Utopia would be better for carefully examining the composition and nuances.
On “Somebody to Love” and “Unforgiven” the differences were more subtle. The drums definitely didn’t have the same detail on the Empyrean as they did on the Utopia, and both songs lack the strong bass elements where the Empyrean really shines. Overall, the delivery felt fairly similar with the Empyrean providing a stronger feeling of impact from the bass and drums – and perhaps a touch more emotion in the vocals – while the Utopia delivered more detail and clearer separation in the instrumentation.
Both the Empyrean and the Utopia are amazing headphones that you can get lost in for hours. Both headphones have many excellent characteristics including strong detail and solid bass response. If you prefer a warm sound, and love the feeling of deep funky grooves, the Empyrean is going to have the edge. If micro-detail and focused, critical listening are more your style, the Utopia is the better pick.
The Bottom Line
Beautifully honest, revealing, and transparent. The Focal Utopia delivers a balanced, dynamic response that is both exciting and revealing across many different types of music. It pulls back the covers on music, revealing everything – the good and the bad – in exquisite, crystalline detail. If your idea of a perfect headphone makes every note, every beat, every frequency laid bare and clear, the Focal Utopia is it.