That’s not hyperbole. It’s not shilling. It’s just the truth. Of all the hundreds of headphone models available today, these are the best. If aliens were to come down to earth and threaten us with total destruction unless we gave them total headphone perfection, Focal’s offices in the French city of Saint-Étienne are where we would take them.
And we can already see some readers diving into our comments section. But! But! Audeze! Sennheiser HD800S! Abyss! STAX!!! How dare you put another pair of headphones above Stax! Your ears are terrible! I will never visit your site again! Don’t lie – that’s exactly what you were going to write. Although chances are, you were probably planning to use a different word to ‘terrible’.
Cool your jets, folks. All the headphones you were planning to mention are excellent. They are very, very fine pieces of equipment, and anyone who listens to them or makes a purchase will be rewarded with exquisite, world-beating sound. It’s just that the Focal Utopia is better.
Here’s what we mean. Take, for example, the Stax SR-007 and 009. These headphones are the kind that audiophiles discuss in hushed, almost reverent tones. The clarity and definition are legendary, as they should be. But here’s the dirty little secret about Stax: some things just don’t sound right in them. Take hip-hop for example. The Stax models just don’t have the weight and bass presence to really show it in its best light. Oh, it’ll sound superb. Of course it will. But listening to hip-hop on a pair of SR-009s is like eating a giant bucket of Korean fried chicken at a five-star restaurant. We adore Korean fried chicken. And we love five-star restaurants. They are both singular, exemplary experiences. But the two just feel wrong together.
Or take the Audeze LCD-4, a planar magnetic headphone par excellence. A flagship model, capable of unbelievable low end and wonderful air and space in the sound. Wood and leather. They are a wonderful bit of kit, and we highly recommend them. But they are also heavy, and very large – something which could and has caused problems for listeners.
And this is the point. For a pair of headphones to be considered better than all the others, they have to be all things to all people. They have to be able to handle absolutely anything you throw at them, under all circumstances. They have to be comfortable, luxurious, with pinpoint clamping pressure and fit. They have to be a perfect ten. And in our opinion, that’s the Utopia. The headphones get everything right. They are absolutely faultless.
So yeah, maybe we are opening ourselves up to some fire and brimstone in the comments on this site, and on Facebook. You know what? Bring it on. We will happily argue this, because we’re standing on a rock-solid foundation.
We pondered long and hard about how to review these headphones. In the rest of our reviews, our analysis is separated into discrete sections: design, sound, accessories, etcetera etcetera. For almost all products, that works fine. It allows both the reader and Google’s algorithm to understand what’s going on, and the former to quickly navigate to the parts they are interested in. It’s a proven layout for reviews. But somehow, it feels inadequate here. As ethically grey as this might sound, it feels wrong to lump something as good as the Utopia in with everything else we review.
Again: many of those products are terrific. The Utopia is just better.
So how do we do this? How do we communicate just how unbelievably, ridiculously, absurdly good these headphones are? The only way, really, is to do the audio review equivalent of food porn. We can’t ship you a pair of $4,000 headphones, but we can tell you what it’s like to experience them. And a fair warning: we are going to gush. We are climbing aboard the hype train and pulling hard on the whistle. If that bothers you, then it’s all good. There are plenty of other more objective reviews on this site. But just this once, we’re going to throw our style guide to the wind, and tell you how we feel.
And besides, as Anthony Bourdain once memorably wrote, who doesn’t enjoy a good wank now and then?
The first impressions of the Utopia are…a little weird. When a pair of headphones costs this much, you expect it to arrive with a touch more fanfare. A hard plastic travel case. A wooden box. At the very least, a really hot delivery person who is at night school to become a masseuse, and has been paid by Focal to offer free back rubs. Instead, what you get is a very simple black box with a hinged lid, the distinctive Focal logo embossed on top. It’s not made of wood or ivory or gold. Just toughened cardboard. It is, frankly, a little worrying. You expected more.
You open it up. It’s a nice-enough interior, with the headphones pushed deep into black foam, and a slim cardboard box housing the cable. The most notable feature is the acoustic-panel-like knobbling on the underside of the lid. It looks good. Fine. Just not mind-blowing. And as a matter of fact, didn’t you see an unboxing video of the $995 Focal Elear that had the exact same packaging? What gives? Say what you like about headphones, but if a model is as expensive as the Utopia is, you’d expect it to show a little bit more flash than its younger brothers. Some jewels, perhaps. A hint of gold. This black box with its ordinary foam inserts feels wrong, somehow.
And the headphones themselves! You winkle them out of their snug foam slot, and the initial impression is a little underwhelming. You run your hands along the plastic hinges, squash the foam earpads. They are a touch heavier than you expected. Although you know that these aren’t the same as the LCD-4s, or a high-class wooden number like the Fostex TH900, you still expected to feel fine wood grain under your fingers.
Your heart is starting to beat a little faster. Did you make a mistake? Was the money from that kidney you sold spent well? Or are you doomed to spend the next month on forums, desperately trying to confirm whether or not these headphones are indeed your endgame?
And that’s when you realise. That isn’t plastic. It’s carbon fibre. The squashy earpads are covered in luxurious, understated, genuine lambskin leather. The black box, the unassuming interior, the lack of baubles and trim…it’s all part of the plan. As you will soon come to realise, these headphones don’t need flash for the same reason that Warren Buffet doesn’t need to drive a Maybach. When you’re the best, you don’t need to show off. You can just be.
So now you’re getting deeper into the package, flipping open the cardboard holder and extracting a goddamn python of a cable, nine feet long, thick and weighty, with a 6.3mm connector and twin two-pin plugs on the other end. No inline controls here - as if you’d ever do anything as vulgar as connect these headphones up to a smartphone. And the headphones themselves get another once-over, the convex metal grille in the middle reminding you (no doubt on purpose) of a high-end supercar, the carbon fibre covered in a plush lambskin headband. No, you’re going to be just fine. These are good. These are very good indeed.
Enough eye-candy. Time to find out how these things sound. And despite the calm you feel, a little ripple of worry still remains. What if these don’t live up to the hype? The confident packaging and smooth design are only one part of the equation, and if these don’t sound as good as they should, there will be rending of hair and gnashing of teeth, not to mention a pointed conversation with your bank manager. So you plug the two-prong connectors in, find a quiet spot - having previously packed your spouse/partner/dog/child/roommate off to the mall/playground/bar/cemetery, and put them on.
They’re hefty, it’s true - but not that hefty, and definitely not as heavy as something like the LCD-4 (For the record, the Utopia is 1.08lbs while the LCD-4 is 1.32). The clamping pressure feels a touch tight, and you worry that you may find it uncomfortable over time. In the hours to come, you’ll discover that fear is unfounded. The headphones sit comfortable and snug on your head, the lambskin shrouding your ears. Isolation is good. Pressure is nominal. Your chosen amp is ready, your tracks agonised over and lined up. Here we go.
You already know, of course, about the beryllium drivers - ultra-light, ultra-stiff, the secret weapon in Focal’s arsenal, capable of generating sound with minimal movement. You also know that these headphones are dynamic, not planar, which is why you’ve always mentally placed an asterisk next to the reviews you’ve seen already. Sure, they might be good, but can they beat planars? Or electrostatics? Or is that just hubris, a Greek word that sounds as if it should be French?
It’s not. They can. They do.
By the first note, you know these are special. By the first verse, you’re in awe. The elements of the song are laid out in front of you like diamonds on black velvet. Everything is in its own place, perfectly positioned, so clear and lifelike that it’s as if you’re in studio with the musicians, watching them work, mere feet away. No headphone you’ve ever heard has shown this much clarity, this much realism. It defies belief.
To call the highs detailed would be to short-change the word. The mids are as warm and welcoming as the bed in the guest room of a favored relative. At first listen, the bass sounds just a touch anaemic - but in reality, it’s just restrained, its power and weight, like everything else you’re hearing, perfectly controlled. In the hours to come, you’ll test this, throwing the nastiest, gnarliest, bassiest tracks you can it.
All is calm. All is clear.
Wonder gives way to excitement. All those old tracks you haven’t listened to in years come rushing back into your memory. Your streaming playlist quickly becomes a crowded mess, the floor around you strewn with CDs and vinyl slipcases. You’re almost too excited to listen to whole tracks: instead, you’re dashing through them at a breakneck pace, ticking off genres, hearing things you’ve never heard before. You can pinpoint the moment the guitarist places her hands on the strings, hear the breath of the pianist, the quick, almost imperceptible intake of breath before a heavy metal vocalist screams - the one that should have been buried under all that distortion. Every cliche you’ve ever heard about good headphones is wedging itself into your brain, and you have a just-had-sex smile on your face. If anyone else happens to be in the room with you, they think you’ve gone mad, until you let them have a go.
In the days and weeks to come, you will feverishly try the headphones on every amp and DAC you can. A tubey Little Dot MkIV. A portable FiiO A5. A gnarly old Yamaha receiver. An Objective2. A JDS Labs The Element. You’ll even hump the cans down to a nearby high-end store and beg the proprietor to let you experiment. He’ll eventually leave you alone with a monster, a PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP, shimmering and glowing with a dozen tubes that are locked away behind a metal grate like they’re dangerous. You will push these headphones to the absolute limit, and they will not break. All volumes, all genres, all amp types. Nothing but crystal, precise perfection.
Strangely enough, your favorite will be the combination of the Utopia and the JDS Labs Objective2. This is a tiny amplifier designed to be completely neutral, with the noise floor so low as to be undetectable, and the headphones absolutely shine when paired with it. With no additional colors to get in the way, the elements of each track are no longer laid out on black velvet. They are laid out against an inky blackness as deep as space. You didn’t think these headphones could impress you any more, but they do.
And at no point do you think: I’ve wasted my money. At no point do you wonder if that four grand could have been better spent somewhere else, or saved, or invested. You just don’t. This is a piece of technology that is worth absolutely every cent that Focal charge for it. Hell, they could probably have charged more. And you are absolutely convinced that these are the best headphones on the planet. Nothing else even compares. That is an absolute, an opinion you are willing to fight to the death for – no, an opinion you’re willing to call fact.
Let’s wrap up. What Focal have done here is absolutely extraordinary. They’ve achieved perfection. Really, it comes down to that. They’ve created the perfect headphones. When the only negative thing about these you can think of is the question of where the hell they go from here, you realise you’re dealing with something truly special. In the end, mere words aren’t quite enough to describe the experience these headphones will give you. The only thing that will do that is putting them on, and pressing play.
At the end of our reviews here at TMS, we list the good and bad points of each product, and provide alternatives for comparison. We’re are not going to do that here. If you want it, there’s a table at the end of this review listing the Utopia’s specs, but we are definitely not going to compare them to anything else. They’re in a class of their own. There’s also a video review, if you still need it. Because really, there’s only one conclusion here, and that’s that you should buy these immediately, if you can afford to. They are the single easiest Editor’s Choice award we’ve ever given out.
After all: how often does perfection come along?
(Big thank you to The Sound Room for letting us test the Utopias on their DiaLogue amp. Go visit. It’s a good place. And thanks to Focal, and to Wendy at the Max Borges Agency for the loan of the headphones. They’re good people.)