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Focal Utopia (2022) review: Is this finally, and irrefutably, the world’s best dynamic headphone?

By Kenny Yeo - 16 Sep 2022
Launch SRP: S$7299

Focal Utopia (2022) review: Is this finally, and irrefutably, the world’s best dynamic headphone?

Focal is back with a new second-generation Utopia headphone that is said to address the shortcomings of the first.

Flagship ambitions

The market for personal audio equipment was one of the fastest growing segments of consumer technology for the past couple of years. And I’m not referring only to true wireless earbuds but also wired headphones, particularly high-end ones. How else can you explain the sheer number of high-end options available in the market today? 

Focal made headlines when it unveiled the first-generation Utopia back in 2016. Here was one of the world’s premier loudspeaker manufacture entering the high-end headphone space, and boy, did they do it in a big way. The original Utopia was designed with a different perspective (Focal primarily makes loudspeakers, after all) and had an uncommon M-shaped diaphragm made of beryllium. It also had the price tag to match. Luckily, the way it sounded was as awesome as its price. But it wasn’t perfect. 

The most common complaint was that it could do with more bass. Another common gripe about the Utopia was that it didn’t sound as wide as one might expect flagship-class headphones to be; particularly against Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800S, which incidentally, costs a lot less. Fortunately, Focal has been listening to its customers' feedback and they believe that these issues have been addressed with the new second-generation Focal Utopia.

 

Design & accessories

The housing is different but you'd only notice if you are intimately familiar with the first-generation Utopia.

Like its predecessor, the new Utopia is an open-back dynamic driver headphone. Most people won’t notice it if they only took a passing glance because it looks mostly like its predecessor. They are both black and have thick leather perforated leather headbands and leather earpads, carbon fibre yokes, and metal grilles. However, they are tell-tale signs if you know where to look.

The yoke is recycled forged carbon fibre, so it has a distinctive marbled pattern. The grilles, both inside over the drivers and outside of the housing, are also different. The driver grille is now shaped like an M to follow the curve of the speaker driver – the first-generation Utopia has a flat grille. This, according to Focal, results in a more linear treble.

And using lessons gleaned from the Focal Clear MG, the new Utopia has a honeycomb pattern grille on the earcups, which, according to Focal, is more open and allows the driver to decompress more completely. You also get the stylised Focal logo on the grille. The positions of the connectors are also slightly different. They are more tightly integrated into the earcup on the new Utopia.

The yokes are gorgeous forged carbon items.

The other key difference is in the voice coil. It’s now 30% copper and 70% aluminium, which, Focal claims improves reliability. I’m not insinuating that the first-generation Utopia was an unreliable headphone, but if you entered the words “Focal Utopia driver failure” into Google Search, you’d find a not-insignificant number of threads with complaints of Utopia drivers giving up. We’ll never know the full extent of this issue, but it’s safe to say that it’s more than what Focal wants which is why they are making changes to the new Utopia.

The weight of this new headphone is unchanged at 490g, which is substantial. You’d definitely feel them on your head. Fortunately, the plush headband and lambskin earpads help give the sensation that it is slightly lighter than it actually is and make the Utopia comfortable enough to wear for long periods. I had no problems wearing them for an entire two-hour-long movie.

The cables feel solid but are also heavy and not very pliant.

The new Utopia is fairly well accessorised. Like other Focal headphones, you get a handy hard carrying case. You also get two cables: a 1.5-metre single-ended cable that terminates in a 3.5mm jack and another much longer 3-metre balanced cable that terminates in a 4-pin XLR. You also get a 3.5mm to 6.5mm adapter. The new Utopia uses Lemo connectors like its predecessor.

Compared to older Focal cables, the cables that come with the new Utopia are a slight improvement. They still feel rubbery and heavy but are very slightly less stiff and more pliable. The weight is the main issue because, depending on how you drape the cable, it can cause a slight tugging sensation on the headphone when you wear them. The only upside is that the cables feel indestructible. That said, considering the price of this headphone, I’d expect cables that feel better and are lighter. I’m certain many owners will swap them and use customised cables. 

 

How does it sound?

They new grilles are supposed to help the driver decompress fully.

Like the first-generation Utopia, the new one also has a driver that has an M-shaped beryllium dome. And despite the new voice coil composition, the specs are unchanged. Impedance remains at 80 Ohms, sensitivity at 104dB SPL/1mW @ 1kHz, and frequency response is an impressive 5Hz to 50kHz. But, as we all know, these numbers tell you nothing about how a headphone would sound.

The first thing most listeners would notice is that the new Utopia is that it has noticeably stronger, fuller, and deeper bass. And as you’d expect when you pay top dollar for a TOTL headphone, the amount of increase is well judged. Also, the quality is very good. The bass is textured, clean, and hits with authority. That said, I still think that the bass of high-end planars from Hifiman and Audeze go deeper and have better technicalities. Crucially, however, it can no longer be said that the Utopia has poorer-than-expected bass performance. The quality and quantity of bass that this new Utopia delivers are perfectly adequate and very good.

Technically speaking, the new Utopia is excellent. Despite the fuller bass and new voice coil composition, it loses none of the dynamism that has become a hallmark of the first-generation Utopia. It also sounds fantastically detailed, fast, and clean. And class-leading detail retrieval means there’s a palpable sense of texture to vocals and instruments. The staging is wider and imaging is a little more precise too. Combined with the fuller bass response, these qualities give the Utopia a more lifelike sound.

The elevated bass response also has a profound impact on the way the Utopia sounds overall. The first-generation Utopia was loved for its dynamism and almost peerless rendition of the mids and treble. It had a unique sound that was characterised by its lightning-quick response to notes, very present mids, and incredibly smooth and airy treble. To my ears, it’s neutral but leans ever so slightly towards being a little bright.

The new Utopia sounds noticeably more balanced and even.

This new Utopia, partly as a result of its deeper, fuller bass, sounds markedly different. It’s a darker and more laid-back sounding headphone. The tuning elsewhere in the frequency range seems to have also changed. The upper mids and treble sound less airy and sparkly to my ears, which is a great shame because it was one of the best aspects of last generation Utopia. I suspect these changes were made to ensure a balanced sound – otherwise, it would sound too V-shaped. Consequently, the overall signature is now what I’d considered balanced but with a mildly dark tilt. The best way to describe it is actually in terms of another popular headphone. It sounds like a slightly less bassy HD650 with superior technical attributes.

It is an improvement over the old Utopia? That depends greatly on your tastes and priorities. If you’ve always liked the old Utopia but felt that it needed more bass, then I suppose, yes, the new Utopia is a marked improvement. For others, the answer is less clear. While the new headphone sounds more balanced, it does lose some of the magic – particularly in the treble – of the old. The old Utopia had a distinctive sound signature and this new one trades some of that uniqueness for a sound that I think more people will find appealing. Furthermore, it’s a sound signature that lends itself better to multiple genres of music. Rock, pop, metal, instrumental, classical, house, or jazz, the new Utopia handles them all adeptly. 

 

Final thoughts

Pricey doesn't even begin to describe the Utopia's eye-watering price tag.

Let’s address the elephant in the room, the new Utopia will retail at S$7,299, which easily makes it one of the most expensive you can buy today. But to give further context to this figure, consider that the first-generation Utopia had a launch price of S$5,699

Let’s not kid ourselves, no headphone at this price range is ever going to be considered good value. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be worth your monies. Overall, the new Utopia makes a very strong case for being the best dynamic-driver headphone in the world. Because now, allied with its amazing technical performance and wider sound stage is a sound signature that is more even, more balanced, and that will sound better with more kinds of music. Admittedly, it loses some of the magic of the old, but make no mistake, this is a more complete headphone.

If you can resist the temptation to buy new headphones, the new Utopia could very easily be the only headphone you would ever need. Surely that means it is an astute investment.

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9.0
  • Design 8.5
  • Performance 9.5
  • Features 8
  • Value 6.5
The Good
Superlative technical performance
Pleasing, satisfying sound signature
Made with premium materials
Plush headband and earpads
Well accessorised
The Bad
Very expensive
Heavy to wear
Stock cables are stiff and clumsy
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