First of all, you may have read a few reviews of the Focal Utopia headphones that say, “[ …] they sound the very best (with the exception of the Abyss) […]”. I firmly want to debunk that myth. I owned a pair of Abyss AB-1266 Deluxes, superseded only recently by the Abyss Phi’s, using them with both a Cavalli Liquid Gold and Woo Audio WA5-LE V2 headphone amp, and I finally sold the Abyss headphones because they just didn’t sound right, by which I mean they didn’t emotionally connect me to the music. Yes, they had lots of ambience or air, but so does a piezoelectric tweeter mounted inside of a tin can. That doesn’t mean you can forget about the headphones and fall into Bach’s Mass in B-minor. With the Focal Utopias, you can (within limits), and you don’t need a high-current headphone amp.
I tried the Utopias with a Woo WA6-SE, the Cavalli Liquid Gold, and the Woo WA5-LE V2 with several different sources, and–although I think the Liquid Gold made the best match using the Focal stock cable–it didn’t sound like a night and day difference. Unlike the Focal Elears, the Utopias sound a little hot (i.e., bright) and how you want to deal with that comes down to a matter of personal preference. I would likely get the Black Dragon Premium headphone cable from Moon Audio in Cary, NC, because it sounds just a tiny bit soft. On the other hand, if you like DSD and/or MQA files a lot, it might not bother you so much. It comes down to system and music format/encoding matching. I will say that when I first took the Utopias out of the box, I felt like I was a holding a pair of headphones built to the same engineering tolerances as a Formula One race car. They just feel good in your hand and, again unlike the Abyss, on your head.
Recognizing that the Utopias might have so much resolving power that they could show off flaws in my headphones-only system, I ordered some NOS (New Old Stock) rectifier and driver tubes to better match the Western Electrics 300B power tubes I have in my Woo WA5-LE V2. In all truth, using all non-stock tubes in the Woo headphone amplifier with the Utopias substantially improved the emotional intimacy of the listening experience and took away pretty much all of the brightness I mentioned. I wouldn’t mind replacing the stock cable from Focal with, say, the Moon Audio Black Dragon headphone cable to improve the clarity of the sound and make some subtle final adjustments to the treble, but I really had no complaints. In fact, the retubed WA5-LE V2 made the Utopias sound very close to the reference electrostatic headphone setup that I have in my reference system.
I decided to return to my reference planar dynamic headphones, the original HiFiMan HE-1000’s with the Moon Audio Premium Black Dragon headphone cable. These felt much lighter to wear than the Utopias and sounded a bit more open without seeming overly bright. I think that both the Focal Utopia headphones and the HiFiMan HE-1000’s represent the very best you can get with non-electrostatic headphone designs today. Here’s a small table comparing the better attributes of the Utopias and the HE-1000’s (note that I have left out the Abyss because, well, why bother paying more for less?):
So what does all this mean? Does thus mean that you should get a pair on HE-1000’s instead of the Utopias? Should you go electrostatic? I can’t say for sure because (a) I didn’t have as good a headphone cable for the Utopias as I did for the HE-1000’s and (b) once you’ve gone electrostatic, there’s no going back. I can say that the Utopias are everything that the Sennheiser HD800’s promised to be but weren’t, that the Utopias feel like a BMW or a Mercedes Benz, and that the Utopias sound great no matter how you evaluate them. If you can afford a pair, I say get them. They certainly belong near the top of the list of the ten best headphones of all time.
Following are select albums used in the evaluation of the Utopias:
- David Bowie (AKA Space Oddity) by David Bowie — 24-bit/192-kHz PCM download
- Orphénica Lyra, 1554 by Miguel de Fuenllana — Red Book CD
- Lemonade (Explicit) by Beyoncé — MQA-encoded TIDAL HiFi stream