Focal Utopia. “World’s Best Headphone.”
This was the proclamation made by the man who gave me my first job doing headphone reviews, my mentor and predecessor at Innerfidelity, Tyll Hertsens. As a young teenager I remember learning a lot from Tyll and Innerfidelity, and the exciting discussions of his reviews and measurements that made their way onto the forums at head-fi and other sites.
Words and Photos by Grover Neville
To my great surprise, the reviewing game came with far fewer entitlements or perks than I had been led to believe by cynical forum goers. By contrast, earning manufacturers trust as a young reviewer was a process – not an uphill battle, but certainly a proving ground of sorts. I always felt the need to hold up the standards that had been set by the OGs as it were. Those guys worked hard, damn hard at their jobs.
“The Best Headphone in the World!”
The declaration then of the Focal Utopia (website) as the world’s best headphone was a moment to pause and reflect, we had all been to the summit and back, and though these would not be the last headphones to earn the moniker, they were first that felt like they had really earned it. The measurements were near-immaculate, the build quality was top shelf and the sound, for those who’ve had the chance to hear the Utopia, spoke for itself. For those who had been following the high-end headphone hobby for six to eight years and saw the rise of the headphone as an art and science, this was a watershed moment.
There was some controversy afterwards regarding measurements and consistency of the samples sent to Innerfidelity at the time, which perhaps didn’t give the Utopia quite the fair shake it deserved, and so, several years wiser, I revisited the Focal Utopia after a generous offer from Focal Naim America. Though they may not have known it, I began this review with a sense of the weight of years. Innerfidelity is gone now, the site has been shut down, and my initials are not T.H. yet I started this review feeling like a great deal of trust and responsibility had been placed in my hands.
First, I would like to correct the notion that Focal has any issues with unit-to-unit consistency. Through a series of generous displays from the customer service folks over at Focal Naim America, my house temporarily ended up looking a bit like a Focal shipping warehouse, and I had at one point, three separate Utopia units in-house. They all sounded identical, and when I gave them a few impulses on my basic headphone measurement rig, all the graphs came out looking equally similar. Actually startlingly similar, indicating an even greater unit-to-unit consistency than I’ve come to expect from some very well known manufacturers. Focal Naim America clearly has their fabrication process down here. Kudos also to the incredibly quick and kind-spirited folks over at Focal Naim America who were so helpful in managing all the back and forth shipping, it was among the most pleasant experiences I’ve ever had dealing with any company, hi-fi or not.
As for the Focal Utopias themselves, some years on after their release, they are still a marvel of industrial design. The X-shaped swiveling yoke cutouts that move with buttery smoothness, the supple plush full-grain leather ear-pads, and the intricately laced metal grills still all add up to one of the finest headphone builds available. There really isn’t anyone who can do it quite like the French. They aren’t the absolute lightest, most weightless headphones out there, but they’re more than comfortable enough, and certainly prettier than just about anything else out there. These are very much “set and forget” which to my mind is the key thing with headphones.
So let’s get down to the sound, and the first order of business: frequency response. From 40-400hz the Focal Utopia is essentially flat, with relatively little or none of the lower mid/upper bass hump of many dynamic drivers. There’s a mild contour of a few dB but overall everything here is liquid smooth and coherent. Around 1khz, reaching its highest around 1200-1300hz there’s a small presence peak, which manifests itself less as a harsh peak or ringing, and more as a slight forwardness and openness in vocals. Above that it’s falling/flattish response roughly tracks the Harman curve, with perhaps another mild but not bothersome peak around 6khz.
The entire response is very smooth, and interestingly, I find the 1.2khz peak pleasant on a lot of material, primarily because of its quality and the smoothness with which the entire headphone’s frequency response is presented. I eq’d this peak down by a few dB and found I was actually enjoying the slight forwardness it gave to vocals and solo instruments, and ended up leaving my EQ off. So what we get is essentially flat in the critical mid-range and low regions, with a slight presence peak in the mids, and a generally smooth treble with a hint of extra information.
Frequency response is a strength of the Focal Utopia, but it’s not its biggest strength. That award goes to its transient performance. Transients have exceptional impact, and decays seem to float in space and fade into nothingness. There’s a total absence of any weird ringing or other artifacts in the decay of any frequencies, from bass to treble. Even when playing 20-30hz test tones and heavily bassy music as close to full-scale as I dared to get, the headphone seemed to recover from the edge of almost-bottoming-out to a lightning quick quiet passage with total ease and control.
I never detected any kind of “Beryllium” character to the sound, nor any other unusual hardness to transients or other textures I’d typically associate with metal dome drivers or other exotic materials. The only identifiable signature the Focal Utopia gave off was an extreme sharpness to its rendering of images. Other headphones in my stable, planar magnetics especially, render a wider sound-stage, but with the Utopia images were painted in crystal clarity and supremely tight definition. Both had their merits, but there was something uniquely attractive about the ultra-defined imaging of the Focal Utopia. No other passive, processing-free headphone I can recall has gotten quite as close to sounding like an ultra-defined, high-resolution speaker system as the Utopias. Or at least, as close to the imaging trick of those systems.
If I had any nits to pick, there would only be two, and I consider them more attributes than downsides. The first is the portrayal of inner detail. The Focal Utopia presents a great deal of coherency, but it is a separation monster. Foreground and background depth, stereo pan, highs, lows mids, micro-detail and macro-dynamics, are all presented with a tremendous degree of separation. None of it sounds disconnected, but some people prefer a feast of meat swimming in gravy and stuffing, and some prefer a systematically dissected presentation of Sashimi. The Utopia was more Sashimi than bœuf bourguignon. I enjoy both, but when given a choice, I’ll typically pick the sushi.
The second is the aforementioned relative width. For those who love huge, epic sound-stages, the Focal Utopia is again a more precise, sharply defined performer. For those addicted to the huge sound-stage of many planar magnetic designs, the Utopia performs a different trick, one equally as adroit and addictive to my ears, but different, and I would be remiss not to mention it. To my ears the Utopia does something very special, and I think more familiar to the two-channel audiophile.
With the Focal Arche
These are my observations about the Utopia on a variety of reference gear I have, but it’s when paired with the Focal Arche that the Utopia really comes alive. The Arche as an amplifier with other headphones generally has a dense, slightly warm, yet very sweet and resolving sound, with a silky smooth mid-range and treble. This compliments the Focal Utopia perfectly, not hindering any of its good qualities, but giving it a tiny bit more meat on its bones, thickening the ultra-sharp 8K-esque images the Utopia renders, and sweetening the mid-range so that the 1.2khz peak seems ever so slightly milder. Not softer exactly, nor with any less impact, just a tiny bit more spacious, a tiny bit more revealing of decay instead of transients.
Likewise the Arche seems to function a bit like a bus compressor does, to take an analogy from the pro audio world. A great bus compressor will typically do very little compression but very gently glue a mix together, filling in the space between instruments to enhance the coherence of a mix and get everything to sit in the sound-stage comfortably. So it is with the Focal Arche, which just seems to enhance the sashimi of the Utopia with a warm sweet potato tempura aperitif.
Further to this point, the Focal Utopia seems actually a bit fussy about its amplification, and the output impedance of the amp made an apparent difference, with lower almost always being better. Even my reference SPL Phonitor X didn’t seem to drive the Utopia quite as pleasantly as the Focal Arche. In many cases I feel a great pairing can raise a headphone to a truly spectacular level, but in the case of the Utopia, unless you’re willing to search out a truly exotic custom piece, the Arche is the clear choice. Plus, bundling them offers an appreciable cost-savings. Were I in the market for an endgame headphone and amp solution, that makes a very tempting deal.
The Focal Utopia then is everything it’s been built up to be. When it came out it truly was the world’s best headphone. Is it still the world’s best headphone though? A lot has happened since then, the high-end market is crowded, and $4000 for a headphone seems almost pedestrian nowadays with all of the companies jumping into the game, many of them stretching the definition of what a headphone is. But the Utopia was the first, and in a relatively “normal” headphone form-factor, and at a price that is not absurd… by the way I would take a Utopia and Arche over a certain $60,000 headphone system whose name I won’t mention.
As the final chapter closes on the old guard of head-fi, and we move into the comfortably established phase of the headphone hobby, I can say this much, no matter who you are, two-channel enthusiast or long-time headphone junkie, the Focal Utopia and Arche combo is Summit-Fi done right. I’ve heard and lived with some of the most exotic headphone setups that exist, and this one could easily be The One.