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January 2023

Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Focal Utopia Headphones Third Edition Review
After six years on sale, Focal's flagship headphone receives a comprehensive revision, drawing on the company's speaker expertise to stay competitive.
Review By Ed Shelly

 

Focal Utopia Headphones Third Edition Review

 

  2016 was the point when Focal's commitment to the headphone category stepped up a gear. Up to then, the company had been content to produce relatively affordable models, contesting the newly created 'nomad' category of headphones that could be used both at home and on the move, but the release of three considerably more expensive models marked a shift upmarket and much of the credibility that underpinned this was supplied by the flagship. As well as making use of the Utopia name for the first time on a headphone, Focal also employed beryllium for a driver material.

The resulting headphone was very impressive indeed and has been unchanged for six years, even as the more affordable tiers were revised. Only now has Focal seen fit to change the Utopia, and it has done so without changing the name; the new model, selling for £4699, is still 'Utopia' with no prefixes or suffixes being added. The headphone itself is also the same fundamental pattern as its predecessor and other members of the Focal range. This means that a single 40mm dynamic driver – smaller than most rivals – is mounted in each enclosure.

In the Utopia, this driver is made of pure beryllium, and is both the largest such driver that the company makes, and the company's only application where it's used for anything other than high-frequency reproduction. Each driver has an M-shaped cross-section to increase the stiffness and rigidity, and this is now matched with a protective guard that mimics its shape to ensure that the relative distance from the driver to the guard remains the same. Focal quotes a frequency response of 5Hz- 50kHz, albeit with no roll-off figure given. Something also worthy of note is that the 80ohm impedance and 104dB/1mw sensitivity figure make this a fairly easy headphone to drive.

 

 

Each enclosure is open backed, with a protective mesh covering the outside of the housing. This is now a honeycomb arrangement, similar to that used on the Clear MG, which Focal says strikes a balance between sonic transparency and protecting the rear of the driver. The styling of this mesh is a little different to the Clear MG, however: the motor unit of the driver is more visible and Focal says that the 'ying and yang' effect will see use on full-size Utopia designs in the future.

Much of the revision-work on this new Utopia has centred around reducing the weight and improving overall comfort levels. The most visible manifestation of this is the yoke which is now made of recycled carbon fibre. Focal says this is light and stiff, but has sufficient play to ensure that the Utopia moulds to the shape of your head. When combined with the deep padding on the enclosures and the headband the result is extremely comfortable, helped in no small part by the weight distribution being very well judged too. I've worn the review sample for periods up to six hours without issue – not a claim I would happily make for some other designs at the price.

Somewhat frustratingly, the Utopia has the same cable fitment as the Clear MG, and this won't suit all users. A 1.5-meter unbalanced cable that terminates in a 3.5mm jack (with 6.35mm adapter) is supplied and while this works fairly well when used with smaller devices, it is too short for home listening. Focal does supply a 3-meter cable, but terminates in a four-pin XLR socket which is still not that common a fitment. The Utopia makes selecting an aftermarket cable option trickier than the Clear MG by using LEMO connectors at the headphone end as well.

 

 

Style And Finish
The Utopia is beautifully built and finished and, if you spend a little time in close examination, you'll be more impressed after a few minutes. Focal supplies both a zip case and a presentation box with the headphones as well which will help to keep the dust off, but my qualm with this is that the all-black colour scheme of the Utopia doesn't look or feel as special as the rather less expensive Clear MG. The recycled carbon yoke in particular looks more like a paint error until you know what you are looking at, and while beauty isn't everythingl, being upstaged by a less expensive relative is not ideal.

The review sample was supplied with a Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, which is being pushed as the ideal partner for the Utopia, and the first listening I carried out though was with the short cable straight into a Chord Electronics Mojo2 and Poly combination. Listening to the Punch Brothers' Hell on Church Street via Roon demonstrated that Focal's sensitivity measurements seem to be pretty accurate and that you can run the Utopia off fairly compact hardware if you wish.

More importantly, even on the end of the Mojo2, the Utopia can do some rather impressive things. Focal has worked long and hard at ensuring that there is little in way of a sonic fingerprint that makes you go "that's the Beryllium!" but the absolute lack of moving mass lends the Utopia an immediacy that is mesmerising to hear. The opening strings of the cover of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald rise out of silence and here, they do so in a way that is startlingly convincing. Listen to a more terrestrial headphone and you become aware that, however briefly, a normal dynamic driver has a minor moment of 'ramping up' which the Utopia simply doesn't possess.

 

 

Like A Planar Magnetic, But...
The effect is akin to a planar magnetic driver, but the Utopia then goes on to combine this with a level of bass extension that is generally beyond that configuration. The live performance of 'In Your Eyes' on Peter Gabriel's Live in Athens 1987 begins with a percussion session that has a depth and control that belies the 40mm size of the drivers. The combination of speed and sheer hitting power on offer here makes the Utopia an extraordinarily capable partner for electronic music.

Good as the performance is with the Mojo2, the Utopia responds positively to more capable hardware: the partnership it forms with the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition is deeply impressive. Used via the four-pin balanced XLR connection, the Focal gains a perception of space and three-dimensionality that – even without any form of crossfeed selected – results in an incredibly three-dimensional performance. Meanwhile, the orchestra supporting Gregory Porter on Concorde is utterly convincing in terms of weight, scale and tonality.

Most of these attributes were recognisably present in the original Utopia but the revised model really shows advantages in two areas. The first is the sheer rhythmic energy it demonstrates across pretty much everything you play. The title track of Robert Plant's Band of Joy is propulsive and energetic in a way that I never really felt its predecessor was capable of being. In this regard, the new Utopia is much closer to the Clear MG which is no bad thing. What Focal has done very successfully is ensure that slower and more delicate music remains slow and delicate. Returning to The Trinity Sessions by the Cowboy Junkies sees the Focal handle everything without even hinting at relentlessness.

 

 

A Level Of Forgiveness
The other development is arguably more useful still. Without compromising on its ability to sound truly astonishing with great recordings, Focal has somehow managed to engineer in a level of forgiveness to the new Utopia that allows it to deliver material that would have been somewhere between uncomfortable and unpleasant before. I spent an enjoyable session listening to Dead Letter Office, a collection of early B-Sides and other curios from R.E.M. Many of these early recordings rough and ready artifacts from gigs and sessions, often made on thoroughly indifferent equipment, and while the Focal makes you aware of these limitations but it's never a dealbreaker: instead, it immerses you in the chaotic energy.

It's this last tweak that makes the new Utopia so compelling: I'm not blessed with a taste in music running solely to pristine recordings, and equipment that dissects material I love will ultimately disappoint me. In making the revised Utopia a device that somehow keeps all but the most truly irredeemable records sounding good, Focal has given it formidable all-around ability. Even compared to thoroughly well-engineered rivals like the T+A Solitaire P, the Focal can play more material when connected to a wider spread of equipment and stay comfortable for longer listening sessions.

You can reasonably argue the subdued looks lack a little wow factor but that comes in spades when you start listening. This is a form of greatness that is the mark of a truly well-engineered product, and the revised Utopia looks set to maintain Focal's reputation for sensational headphones.

 

 

 

 

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Specification
Type: Open-back stereo headphones
Frequency Response: 5Hz to 50 kHz
Sensitivity: 104dB
Impedance: 80 Ohms
Drivers: 40mm lightweight Beryllium dynamic drivers
Drivers positioned in open-back headphone chamber
M-shaped grille follows the shape of driver for more fluid airflow
Leather-lined headband and meshed leather ear pads
20mm memory foam padding on the headband and earcups
Forged carbon headband yokes slide comfortably and sturdily into place
10-foot cable with balanced XLR4 connector
3.9-foot cable with unbalanced 3.5mm stereo plug
Each cable features two shielded Lemo locking connectors
1/4" adapter included
Rigid, form-fitting storage case with padded interior
Weight: 17.3 ounces without cable
Warranty: Five years
Price: $4999 

 

 

Manufacturer
Focal
Saint-Étienne, France

Website: Focal.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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