Loudspeakers belong in your living room. They aren’t, commonly, strapped to your head. French audio experts Focal think that’s all wrong, and believe that loudspeakers, or at least the audio experience provided by them, should be available from a set of really excellent headphones. It took four years to realize, but now we have the Focal Utopia, a set of beautiful headphones packed with industry-first technology, to caress your eardrums with the sounds usually only associated with a sizable set of floor standers.
“It’s hard to listen to a piece of music in a room, then get the same vivid experience using headphones,” Focal said at CanJam London 2016, where Utopia received its European unveiling. “You miss the thump in the chest. The presence.” To replicate this, Focal used an entirely new manufacturing process to come up with a pioneering full-range 40mm driver, coupled with an M-shape dome made of Beryllium, that is capable of producing both low and high frequencies. Focal says this low-mass, high-rigidity material has 2.5 times the sound velocity and 37 times the rigidity of titanium, and the resulting frequency response is 5Hz to 50kHz.
The drivers are mounted off-center and deep-set inside the open back cups for improved stereo imaging, and surrounded by aluminum and carbon fiber. The cushions are made from lambskin leather and a special perforated fabric, which has been formulated to help create a balanced, vivid sound while avoiding excessive reverb.
Focal’s built the Utopia to last, right down to a pair of shielded, self-locking LEMO connectors, the same type it says is used by the French army due to incredible reliability in challenging conditions. The headphones have been drop tested to 1.7 meters, although we’d expect anyone investing the $4,000 needed to secure a pair to do their utmost to avoid any floor/headphone interface disasters.
Even before you put them on, it’s obvious these are very special headphones. The box they come in is massive, and contains not only the ‘phones, but also four meters of low-impedance OFC cable, and has a faux soundproofed lining. It’s an event just opening the magnetic clasp holding down the top. Take them out, and admire the stunning design. We adore the carbon fiber hangers, the sleek weave showing through just enough to be seen, and the sci-fi influenced yet still traditional-looking woven mesh over the open back cups.
Put them on, and and you’ll find it hard to believe the Utopias weigh nearly 500 grams. Due to careful design of the headband, they really don’t feel heavy once they’re on. There’s no pressure on the top of your head or over the ears, with no uncomfortable “hanging.” Instead, they almost feel part of your skull.
Plugged into a Naim DAC V1 headphone amp, we listened to a variety of different tracks. 808 State’s In Yer Face sounded superb — rich, noisy, and aggressive — but didn’t demonstrate the Utopia’s party piece: spaciousness. This came with Maroon 5’s Never Leave This Bed, which sounded almost completely different, in a good way, than any time I’d heard it before. Vocals were tight and centered, while the instruments were seemingly flung outside the normal restrictions of a headphone. I listened again, and again. It’s impossible to say whether Focal has achieved its goal of making headphones sound like a set of large speakers after such a short test, but this certainly proved they’re capable of putting in a dynamic, wide, and realistic performance. It bodes well for a longer, more varied test.
However, the Utopia are very, very expensive, and that’s before you buy all the equipment to really make them sing. They’re obviously a money-is-no-object purchase, but on the basis of what we heard, probably worth every penny. They’re up for pre-order through Focal’s website now.
- Gorgeous to look at
- Industry first technology
- Lofty ambitions
- Wonderful audio performance