Review: Focal's £3,500 Utopia headphones
Focal has a long and acclaimed history with speakers and over recent years it has been turning its technologies to headphone creation.
Focal has a long and acclaimed history with speakers, from a French-based precision mechanics company in 1979, to one of the world’s leading speaker designers and manufacturers. Focal has over recent years been turning its technologies to headphone creation, and have now finally released what it claims is the ultimate in reference monitoring headphones, the Focal Utopia. It is based on a full range, open backed loudspeaker with a claimed 5Hz to 50kHz frequency response, and uses a rather special pure Beryllium “M” shaped speaker diaphragm that Focal have spent years in R&D to manufacture.
Any pair of headphones that aims to be the pinnacle of innovation development and manufacturing and charge £3,500 for a pair better be more than good. They need to be amazing. So are the Focal Utopias really the new standard of headphone reference monitoring or glorified audiophile fodder? I nervously opened the Focal box; the packaging is pretty nice, but not opulent, with its up-and-over foldout style magnetic lid, lined with a soft acoustic treatment styled inner foam.
Once you handle the Utopias you soon start to notice the detail and quality. There’s a long thick detachable OFC shielded headphone cable, fitted with shielded Lemo Connectors that connect to the Utopias via a self-locking bayonet and a Neutrick stereo jack at the other end. No mini jack connectors here then!
The cushioned leather headband incorporates an adjustable carbon fibre yoke, beautifully sculptured, strong and light, the reinforced material immediately makes me think of the number of broken plastic yoke headphones I’ve trod on or dropped over the years.
The ear cups are memory foam covered with lambskin and absorption fabric, in a 50/50 split as Focal had even taken to testing the frequency response of the cushions. Encapsulated in a highly open back design to allow for full decompression of the speakers, the retro looking ear cups have the driver assembly placed off centre, positioned to the very front of the cup and angled back towards the ears. I like this design, given the different size of people’s heads. This helps ensure a good stereo image, after all, our ears are angled out from our heads for a reason.
As an engineer I’ve worn a lot of headphones but these felt substantially different. Firstly, the memory foam cushions isolate outside sound incredibly well, I’d go as far as saying it’s one of the most striking parts of the Utopia’s design. The Utopia weighs in at 490g, so not light, yet before I looked up the stats I felt these were a light pair of headphones.
Clearly the Utopias finish has high detail and quality components, but how do they sound? I am basing this article on their use in the professional studio; if Utopias are to be truly called reference headphones there is no better test than being used for mixing and mastering.
My first impressions of the Utopia whilst listening to a variety of master mixes was one of appreciation, the spacious sound and detail takes a while to get used to. Listening to 96k mixes showed beautiful even frequency tonal response - switching back and forth to my monitors, the Utopias weren’t too dissimilar. Normally with any monitor change, the frequency response or stereo width can change dramatically, but then that’s why mixers have different sets of speakers as we want to hear how our mixes translate to other playback equipment. Also our ears quickly compensate to speakers so it’s good to reset your listening environment. With the Utopias I could hear mix compression on some low mids on tracks that even on my trusty Harbeth monitors I’ve used for over a decade, I struggle to hear. I admit I was a little presumptuous expecting something bright and bass heavy, but the Utopias are far from cliché frequency tweaked sound flattering reproduction.
Compared to other headphones, there were obvious different frequency and phase responses, however overall the centre image felt less present on the Utopia. Its open back does create a different sound stage. To resolve this, I tested comparisons via Sonarworks Reference 4 software, an excellent monitoring calibration software that equalises colouration and phase on monitors and headphones. Sonarworks were kind enough to provide a calibration profile for the Utopia, yet if I was to keep them, I’d certainly invest in a Sonarworks custom frequency profile. I compared Utopia headphones to a variety of studio cans including Sennheisers, AKGs or my favourite studio affordable ATH M50x. A crazy comparison for something costing over 20 times more but also difficult because these are all closed back headphones, and I don’t use open back in the studio. However using Sonarworks calibration, sound differences between headphones can be minimised. Focal’s proficiency is quite apparent; Utopia’s frequency response profile was the most even and they easily provided the best, most sublime listening experience.
Testing the Utopia was a lovely audio journey and the excellent construction is supported by innovative design and supreme speaker manufacturing. The resulting sound is second to none. Transients are sharp, and tonal response of mixes come out in detail and depth. If you’re one for 3D mixing or mixing within a box like me this is highly important, I want to hear if something doesn’t fit, if an EQ is too sharp, how wet or dry an instrument is etc. I rely on my monitoring, it is after all the most important part of any studio upon which I base all my audio shaping decisions. Mix tasks can be done with a decent set of affordable studio headphones, like the popular Audio Techinca M50x or new M70x supported with calibration software like Sonarworks to achieve great results in the studio. However, the Utopia is in another category altogether in terms of build, design and sonic excellence compared to most low cost studio headphones. If you have to rely on headphones to mix on, master on, or simply want the highest quality mobile playback then investing in great headphones will be a priority. After listening to the Utopias I’d say if your budget allows, the Focal Utopia is the best set you’re likely to find.
- Open-back circum-aural headphones
- Carbon fibre yoke
- Loudspeakers made of a pure Beryllium “M” shape dome
- Frequency response: 5Hz - 50kHz
RRP: £3,500 ($4,840)