Focal NEW Utopia 2022 Headphone Review: Are These Endgame?

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.

Unboxing UtopiaSpecial 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 & Case

Utopia XLR CableUtopia’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 

Utopia GrilleAt 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.

Music Choices

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.

Utopia GrilleGilles 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!

Metallica BlackBecause 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.

Conclusion

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.    

NAIM & Tube AmpObviously 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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