Focal NEW Utopia 2022 Headphone Review: Are These Endgame?
Type: Circum-aural, open-back headphones
Impedance: 80 Ohms
Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
THD: <0.2% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Frequency response: 5Hz - 50kHz
Loudspeaker: 1-9/16" (40mm) pure Beryllium 'M' shape dome
Weight: 1.08lbs (490g)
- 1 x 5ft cable (1.5m) with 1 x 1/8" (3.5mm) asymmetric TRS Jack connector and 2 x Lemo® connectors
- 1 x 10ft cable (3m) with 1 x symmetrical 4-point XLR connector and 2 Lemo® connectors
- 1 x Jack adapter, 1/8" (3.5mm) point socket – 1/4" (6.35mm) point plug
Carrying case: 9.8x9.4x4.7 (25x24x12cm)
Focal's Utopia is a truly high-performance, luxury headphone. First launched in 2016, Utopia was the result of Focal pouring its decades of experience creating some of the world’s most advanced loudspeakers into a single headphone. For 2022, Focal has relaunched the same Utopia, with all the character and attributes that made it one of the finest headphones on the market. Only now it comes with some of the iterative improvements Focal has learned along the way.
Utopia Creation & Evolution
Focal’s line of high-end/Made in France headphones has grown considerably since its inception back in 2016. Only last year Focal had begun rolling-out incremental design updates to some of its most popular headphones. Beneficiaries include Celestee and Clear MG, both of which brought tangible improvements over their predecessors, Elegia and Clear. Now the time has finally come for Utopia to benefit from Focal’s latest research in hi-fi headphone design.
Special thanks to Wendy and Megane at Focal in both North America and France for providing the opportunity to test out the latest of its greatest headphone, while patiently providing insights into its design.
Out of the Box
Opening a Focal Utopia for the first time is a luxury experience, complete with leather-bound boxes and Focal’s signature magnetized church-door peripheral case. The magnetized doors reveal your XLR cable and a leather folder containing paperwork. The thick black, rubberized XLR cable feels top-notch, rugged and flexible with a generous 10-ft length. Closer examination will acquaint you with Utopia’s LEMO connectors that plug into the earcups. Unfortunately Utopia’s LEMO connectors are incompatible with other Focal headphone cables that use the familiar 3.5-mm connector. However, the cables are easily detachable, permitting aftermarket replacement if you’re so inclined.
Inside the main box, you’ll find Focal’s signature headphone carrying case in a dark charcoal hue. Your new headphones will be tucked safely inside with a shorter 5-ft cable fitted with a ¼-inch (6.35-mm) adapter that unscrews for a 1/8th-inch (3.5-mm) stereo headphone jack.
Fit and Finish
The silhouette of all Focal’s Made in France/high-end line is unmistakable with its gentle curves that have proved durable over the years and through several models. Rather than the aluminum of most Focal headphones, Utopia has a forged recycled carbon fibre yoke connecting the headband to its black-on-black earcup housing. The double-black is a departure from original Utopia’s chrome on black earcups. But when the glossy black aluminum hex grille catches light, it shows all the sophisticated aggression of an exotic high-performance sports car. Marking the transducer’s location in the earcup is a black aluminum ring centered by the familiar Focal mark, slightly darkened like a military officer's rank insignia in the field. Original Utopia's traditional red peeks through the center ring’s black metallic pattern, naturally subdued and nicely balanced with the black-on-black earcup.
Utopia's fenestrated leather-wrapped memory foam ear-pad reaches at least ¾-inch in depth and forms a 1-inch thick circular enclosure around your ear. The leather is suitably breathable for a luxury wearable product. In just a few clicks of the yoke/headband, you’ll find your fit. While wearing the headphone in silence, unconnected to any source, you’re met with an unlikely openness. You’ll hear virtually no sonic isolation from the room around you despite all the technology wrapped around each ear. While one of the benefits of hi-fi headphone listening is bypassing room acoustics, you’ll still need some control over ambient noise when listening to any open-back model.
Personally, I’ve never fretted about the weight of a headphone, but at just about 1-lb, Utopia is suitably lightweight with minimal but secure clamp-force. The balance on the head is similar to all of Focal’s high-end line. The only difference with Utopia is the breathable leather adding an extra dimension of tactile comfort. It feels every bit the luxury wearable it set out to be. It actually feels better wearing Utopia in silence all by yourself in an empty room than it feels wearing no headphones at all. You’ll be ready for hours of listening.
Utopia Performance Technology
At the heart of its high-end headphone line is a unique Focal loudspeaker technology, borrowed from its inverted M-shaped dome tweeter. The tweeter technology has been reconstructed into a headphone’s dynamic driver. The material composition of the driver may change by model, but the M-shaped dome remains consistent in a Focal. Utopia’s 40-mm diaphragm is made from a razor-thin slice of pure beryllium with a lightness and sensitivity that lends Utopia incredibly resolving detail. Meanwhile, the rigidity of beryllium along with its unique dome shape provides rigid cohesion under stress for Utopia's dynamic range and punch with almost no distortion.
I’ve reviewed one other headphone that uses Focal’s beryllium driver in the closed-back Stellia. Like Utopia, the driver provides levels of detail one might associate with high-end planar magnetic or Stax electrostatic headphones. You don’t hear a song through Focal’s beryllium driver as much as you peer into it, picking out individual instruments and sometimes unexpected details from the studio’s recording. Neither the beryllium diaphragm nor the M-shaped dome are new to Utopia, this is the same technology Utopia owners have enjoyed since its first release in 2016. However, there are updates both in front of and behind its thin diaphragm.
New for Utopia ‘22 is the curve of the driver’s grille. The grille’s curve is intended to closely match the M-shape of the dome to create a static average distance between it and the moving diaphragm. Focal says this will improve reproduction of higher-frequencies. The curved grille was also a key design improvement found in last year’s Clear MG.
Also new for Utopia 2022 is an update to the voice coil. Copper and aluminum are the most popular voice coil construction materials and both are valued for their respective strengths. Original Utopia went with pure aluminum, valued for its minimal mass. The lightness of an all-aluminum voice coil translates to sensitivity to the most minute electrical signals. Focal headphones like the new Clear MG use a 100% copper voice coil. Copper is valued for its strength and slightly better electrical conduction. Engineers at Focal have discovered what they believe is the perfect balance for Utopia’s new voice coil in a blend of 30% copper and 70% aluminum. The result is lightweight but slightly stronger for Utopia 2022.
Subjective Sound Impressions
When testing an ultra high-end headphone, I generally expect this price range to go one of two ways. Either it flaunts its technology by aggressively showcasing one or more frequency-range with added energy, or they go for a more linear and balanced subtlety. The former can immediately impress, letting you know that these headphones can do something special. The latter disappears into the recording, inviting you to explore its finer details without holding your hand. Fortunately, I found Focal Utopia to be the latter. While not exactly studio monitor sound, Utopia presents a highly linear balance across the frequency spectrum, its borderline analytical detail is tempered by its midrange warmth and natural timbre.
First up, I thought I should first try some higher-brow music than my usual fare. After all, you don’t spend $5K on Made In France headphones just to blast Metallica. I wanted to hear what Utopia can do with the distinctive sound of a violin accompanied by little to no additional instrumentation.
My choice happened to be French violin prodigy, Gilles Apap. I once saw an Apap performance at the University of Waterloo in Canada where he and his violin lead the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. While the orchestra filled in for certain numbers, the show centered on Apap whose performances are known for a mix of comedy, theater and Apap’s signature musical digressions, a frequent source of the show’s comedy. His musical digressions involve effortlessly gliding between styles, sometimes within the same piece of music. He might be presenting Bach or Bartok, then with a slight of his bow-hand transform his violin into a fiddle turning the same piece into an Irish reel or bluegrass.
Gilles Apap, Music for Solo Violin (16/44.1 Lossless): Utopia brought lush timbre and warm midrange to the violin, and incredible detail in the high frequencies presented with impeccable reactiveness to the demands of each track. Focal’s entire high-end line excels at dynamic range and Utopia elevates that attribute to scale.
This recording has Apap playing solo so there’s no escaping the environmental contributions of the chamber. The slight echo and subtle decay of the environment is clearly articulated throughout. The result is continuously perceptible airy spaces between strokes of his bow followed by tight decay as the note begins to collapse, just as the next stroke begins. Utopia’s dynamics in a solo violin are impressive to behold! Each note from start-to-peak-to-decay is clearly defined no matter the tempo. Certain Sonata numbers present slow, emotional tones, giving the listener plenty of time to absorb the rise and fall of each long stroke of the bow. But when the tempo picks up, so do the dynamics, presenting the same rise-peak-decay cycles even at a furious pace.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (24/96 FLAC): This Yeraycito Master consistently highlights the finest attributes of the best headphone equipment I’ve used. The listening experience using Naim Uniti Atom HE and Focal Utopia together is sublime. The recording and amp make an incredible platform for Utopia to express its sense of immersion, detail and imaging. Many great mid-fi headphones I've tested provide this album with imaging that let me localize individual instruments in a tight circle around my head. But Utopia put me inside the expansive performance.
Speak to Me transitions to Breathe (in the air) and ushers you into a journey, Utopia makes the between-track effects sound like a binaural recording. I’m convinced that one of the strongest contributors to Utopia’s imaging, soundstage and openness is the headphone’s near-absolute lack of acoustic isolation while on your head. The Speak to Me/Breathe transitional scream (possibly Clare Tory's voice?) seems to come out of nowhere. Utopia could fool a first-time listener into thinking there was a real-world emergency in the next room.
Utopia acts as a sonic magnifier, you have only to point your attention into any sound to reveal something new that you hadn’t noticed in the recording before. The headphone's relatively shelf-free bass is reserved, but is capable of a Jekyll and Hyde transformation into deep monstrous extension when called upon. It brings its Mr. Hyde bass in Time's ominous horror-movie opening. At first listen, Water’s bass guitar and the deep sonic expanse created by Wright’s analog synthesizer seemed to harmonize into one sound deep beneath the disconcerting rhythm of Mason’s drum. But I skipped back to that section of Time, paid closer attention and could hear each instrument articulated, presenting as separate sounds working in tandem in a way I hadn't heard before. Seek and ye shall find! That's the sonic magnifying glass effect that Utopia brings. Utopia provides a replayability that makes the great recordings novel again.
Utopia Rocks Out to Metallica Too!
Because it’s a Focal, I expect that boom from the dynamic range from its M-shaped driver. Just add hard rock and metal for a punchy listen. But how would Utopia’s linearity and detail fare with Metallica? I was also interested in doing some comparisons between Utopia and one of my own collection’s best headphones for metal, Focal Radiance. Besides being a closed-back headphone, Radiance’s diaphragm is the aluminum/magnesium variety and brings a slight bump in bass which can be exaggerated with a pair of thicker aftermarket earpads I've added. My lightly modded Radiance is a guilty pleasure I happen to love for this album.
Metallica, Black Album (16/44.1 Lossless): With Utopia, all the dynamics I heard in Apap’s violin equally applies to the rise-peak-decay heard in each strike of Lars’ kick drum as he kicks this song into beast mode at about the 1-minute mark. As the tempo builds in this iconic metal tune, all of those little details in low frequency micro-dynamics are presented at speed with incredible timing. Hard rock is indeed a pleasure to hear over Utopia. It lets you close your eyes and drink-in the imaging of each instrument in the band.
My hard rock go-to, Radiance is not a fair comparison to Utopia. Maybe it’s the nature of Radiance’s terrific closed-back sonic isolation, the polar opposite of Utopia's openness, but as expected, Radiance lacks Utopia’s rapid responsiveness. Switching between the two I easily hear Radiance’s extra presence around 100-300-Hz. Switching back to Utopia not only removes the emphasis down low, but made me aware that some of that bass lingers less-defined inside its earcup. I know it sounds like an audio review cliche, but…
It’s as if Utopia cleared away a fog and replaced it with resolution and texture. Utopia unveils the rapid-fire detail in each strike of the kick drum, from rise to peak and quickly fading into the next strike’s peak while simultaneously bringing slam to the crunch of the guitar. Utopia brings a rapidity to dynamic range that Radiance just cannot match.
That’s not a knock against Radiance, its extra bass is subtle and pleasant, especially for certain (aggressive) styles of music and it has that unmatched Focal punch. Rest assured, it will be easy to return to Radiance after I return Utopia to Focal, again and again. But having heard them side-by-side, perhaps I’m now cursed with awareness of that slower responsiveness.
Utopia 2022 is what enthusiasts might call a true end-game headphone and it’s well deserved. This could be the last at-home, indoor listening, open-back headphone you ever need. Of course, you also need a closed-back travel headphone in your collection. But for sitting comfortably at home, closing your eyes and listening through your best DAC/headphone amp, in Utopia you’re getting possibly the finest rendition of what a dynamic driver can do from inside an open-back earcup. It’s linear enough to sound natural with any musical style with just enough of a curve in the frequency spectrum to keep it an engaging listen. The only taste in headphones Utopia might not suit are those who want more elevation in the frequencies we don’t hear as much in nature. But for them, there’s always EQ to customize your personal version of perfection.
Obviously with a price-tag of $4,999, this is a product intended for a highly specialized audience. This is a cost-is-no-object headphone. For the rest of us, let’s keep in mind the audio law of diminishing marginal returns and we'll get as close as our budget allows. We may have to save up to afford a headphone in the $1K range, and we know that a $5K headphone does not offer 5X the sound. What you’ll find comparing Utopia to another open-back Focal high-end headphone with a similarly linear but warm character in Clear MG, is just that little bit extra in the finer details and micro-dynamics. In my opinion that's not enough to warrant the expense, but that’s just me, and balancing my mortgage and child’s college fund while upholding a modest hi-fi audio habit. But we all have different circumstances and anyone can completely understand wanting that little bit extra. Utopia definitely brings it! I for one absolutely loved my time with these headphones.
Like its predecessor, the new Utopia 2022 is going to make a mark on the high-end headphone world. If you keep your eyes peeled, you may find a great bargain on original Utopia in coming months as some owners will inevitably want the latest version. For those who already own the original Utopia, it’s probably not worth an immediate upgrade. As Focal has told us, the differences are slight and the company did not intend to remake the original. You can’t remake perfection. But wow, does this version of perfection sound nice! If you can maintain minimal ambient noise in your listening room, sit back, relax, close your eyes and listen deeply, these headphones will put you into a state of exactly what their name intends - Utopia.
Unless otherwise indicated, this is a preview article for the featured product. A formal review may or may not follow in the future.
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Well said. Gorgeous headphones though.
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Focal NEW Utopia 2022 Headphone Review: Are These Endgame?