World's Best Headphone: The Focal Utopia

Über-expensive headphones are the bane of my existence. They should sound damned good, but historically they all to often have fatal flaws that degrade perceived performance to the point that they really aren't all that much better than some headphones of a much lower price. Sure, they're usually excellent in some ways, but for me a flagship headphone should have a strong balance of performance across the board in addition to areas of outstanding sonic character.

As much as it grates on headphone enthusiasts with normal-sized wallets, flagship headphones are also luxury items and it's perfectly understandable that they're price long as the luxury is really there. In every way from leather pads to carbon fiber parts to high-quality connectors, materials of a $1000+ headphone should be of very high quality....and when the price exceeds $2000 the bar gets even higher. A headphone in this category should never feel or appear cheap in any way.

On these two points, Focal has nailed it...on a couple of levels! First, and maybe most importantly, the recently reviewed Focal Elear at $999 competes very strongly with all other $1000+ headphones and, to my ears, bests them in terms of over-all balance. Second, that's right, Focal's step-down from flagship headphone is already competing head-to-head with the field...and in this present review we'll take a look at their top-of-the-line Utopia ($3999) to see if we're breaking into new territory.

Focal Utopia ($3999)
Okay Utopia, $4k huh, I'm lookin' at you, this better be good.

Oh my, this is a sexy headphone! In my world, killer audio gear is black, and the Utopia is unapologetically, confidently, bad-ass black. Sumptuous black lamb-skin leather covers ample memory foam ear and headband pads. Curvaceous carbon fiber yolks with black-on-black Focal logo attach to the gloss black plastic capsule housing on one end, and slide into the headband through black anodized aluminum headband end fittings. Black metal mesh and matte black plastic outer capsule covers are accentuated by a black anodized driver rear cover ring emblazoned with "Utopia - Beryllium - Fabrique en France." A brushed aluminum grill covers the central rear driver hole. Outer capsule housing holds connections for the two black Lemo connectors on the headphone's cable, which is terminated at the player end with a high-quality Neutrik 1/4" phone plug. All-in-all this is a stealth-black sexy build, with terrific materials, and just the right balance of understatement and bling. A headphone that looks like a million bucks, yours for the paltry sum of $4000. Yes, go ahead and open up the black leather with red stitching accent display case and show it off to your buddies, the Utopia is a battle-ready flagship headphone.

At 490 grams (sans cables) I'd consider it a hefty headphone. For comparison: Audeze LCD-2=570gr; HiFiMAN HE1000=470gr; Ether Flow=400gr; Sennheiser HD 800 S=380gr; Focal Elear=438. Even though weight is a bit on the high side, the Utopia remains a very comfortable headphone. The lambskin leather over memory foam headband pad is plush and distributes the weight over about half the width of my head; the similarly covered earpads have a generous 60mm x 50mm openings and are about 23mm thick with some additional depth in the rear due to the angled driver. These should work just fine for folks with big ears. Caliper pressure is spot on.

The only ergonomic niggle I have is that the cable is quite heavy and can pull significantly as you move around, or increase the headphone weight if the cable is dangling—I ended up putting a small loop of cable on my lap when I listened to lower the dangling weight. While I'm on niggles, the carbon fiber yolks seem to creak a little in the headband adjusters when you manually hold the earcups in each hand and twist. I think it's just a bit of stiction of the carbon fiber agains the sliders of the adjustment mechanism. If you've ever heard a racing sailboat take up the wind, you'll know that a bunch of creaking sometimes is an indicator of high-performance materials—that's how I'm chalking this one up. I heard nothing of this noise when wearing the headphones.

Acoustics and Driver

At the heart of the Utopia is a driver unlike any I've seen before. The overall configuration is driven by the shape of the dome itself. Made from an Beryllium, it is extremely light and stiff. Unlike normal plastic film headphone diaphragms, the bulk of the surface area is taken up by the dome. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • There is less opportunity for for trapped air resonances around the edge of the dome, outside the voice coil.
  • The wide diameter of the voice coil allows for a large opening behind the dome to release sound from the back of the driver with less opportunity for resonances and poor tuning.
  • Focal claims the large, stiff dome shape propagates the sound wave front more naturally towards the ear.

Attached to the rear at its annular crease, the dome is driven by an unusual voice coil. Most voice coils are built by wrapping the wire around plastic tube called a former which is then attached to the driver diaphragm. The Elear voice coil is built by wrapping the wire and adhesives around a form, but the form is removed before the voice coil is attached to the dome. This makes for an extremely light voice coil, and therefor a more responsive driver.

The dome is attached to the frame with a surround that acts as a suspension allowing the dome to move back and forth freely. The surround is an astonishing 80 microns thin (about the same thickness as a human hair) and permits the dome to move relatively long distances without impediment keeping distortion low even at high volumes and low, long excursion, frequencies.

Being quite curious about their design process, I sent a couple of question over to the folks at Focal about the differences between the Elear and Utopia drivers. They responded:

The Beryllium dome is 15mg lighter than the Aluminum-Magnesium one. The weight of the mobile assembly of Utopia is 135 mg, whereas the Elear one is 150mg.

Moreover, even if the Aluminum-Magnesium M shape dome offers a very interesting mass-rigidity-daping ratio, it can not be compared to the Beryllium one.

As Beryllium is more than 35 times more rigid in flexure than Titanium as an example. This results in an extremely low distortion of the dome itself Moreover, the damping of Beryllium is impressive. The sound velocity of Beryllium is 2.5 times higher than Titanium. These two parameters, plus the lightness of Beryllium offer a dome that will reproduce the audio signal with an impressive precision, without adding or hiding any information contains within the audio signal thanks to an impressive lightness in order to react super fast, very high rigidity to avoid distortion and great damping to avoid sound coloration as an example.

We'll get to it in the Sound Quality section, but I'll say right here and now, there's a clear difference between the Elear and Utopia: the Elear has great punch and dynamic control, but the Utopia bests it in balancing solid dynamic impact with nuanced resolve. To borrow a phrase from the SBAF guys, this headphone has great plankton.


Focal Utopia baffle plate.

The entire driver assembly is mounted to the rear of the angled portion of the baffle plate, and the dome is position slightly forward, aiming back at the ear. Around the driver in the baffle plate is a large array of vent openings covered in a very fine open mesh.


Looking through the capsule you can see this is a very acoustically open headphone.

This leaves a fairly large opening for sound to escape the ear cup, travel through the mesh and into the ear capsule, and exit the ear capsule through the outer metal screen making this a very acoustically open headphone. The sound from the back of the driver exits through the central screen of the outer ear capsule; the two acoustic signals never meet until outside the headphones. Very cool.

Focal's Development Effort

I can't stress enough how astonishingly impressive I find the new Focal Utopia and Elear headphones. I knew Focal was a great speaker builder. I knew they had extraordinary expertise. But I'm not intimately familiar with the speaker world and their acumen within it, and that expertise doesn't necessarily translate directly into the headphone world. To see these headphones appear suddenly and with such command in a domain with which I am intimately familiar is disorienting. It's as if a new mountain just popped into view in an otherwise familiar landscape.

I asked them about their design goals when developing these two new headphones:

Basically, we wanted to achieve the best headphones in their price categories in regards to two key points: performances and comfort. These two points lead the project from the first to the very last step. As an example, on the performance side, this resulted in a totally new driver concept (patent pending). On the comfort side, both Utopia and Elear ensure a very good fit whatever the head size and shape due to an in-depth study and design of the headband and yoke.

I was hoping for a 20 page reply; the project I'm told, has been actively on-going for the past four years. Having been involve with product development projects numerous times in the past and now having experience these headphones, I'm not surprised in the least that these cans were four years in the making. Focal has largely redefined...or better said, refined anew, what it means to be a high-end headphone. A technological tour de force.


And now to the good part, let's have a listen...

9641-82 Ave
1 780 439 39 01

drm870's picture

How does this compare to Sennheiser's new Orpheus version?

drm870's picture

Whoops, forgot the Orpheus is an electrostat (and would presumably be included in your lump "Electrostatics" comparison, then). Sorry!

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've only had a couple short listening sessions with it. I wouldn't want to lump it in with the others out of hand, but I can tell you that I was personally more impressed with the Utopia when first exposed to it. $55000 is a VERY high bar.
drm870's picture

About what I expected you to say. :) I mean, regardless of which you thought was better on absolute terms, I figured the Utopia pretty much had to be the better value (to put it lightly).

brax's picture

I would love to hear your opinion of the Utopia in direct comparison with the Stax SR-009 and one of the better electrostatic amps you yourself reviewed in 2012. As in 'The Big Sound' your only having one electrostatic amp, one nobody would have claimed as the best at bringing out the best in the Stax SR-009 that you are basing your present opinion on - and - that almost a year removed -? As both phones you rated as 'the world's best headphone', with your extraordinary perspective your objective opinion of one against the other - set up competitively - would be extremely useful.

EvenR's picture

Which ones are best with the elear and utopia?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I test all headphones on the Simaudio HA430.
shp.jc's picture

I heard the Focals with the Simaudio 430 at the Focal event at The Source AV and the combination was fantastic.

sunnydaler's picture

typical close-miked and heavy-handed 'popular music' recording are not good for imaging test in super near-fielding listening.

thekorsen's picture

Its funny you mentioned soundstage depth being EQ dependant, I was coming to the same conclusion after experimenting to make my TH-X00s sound like my ALpha Primes. By adding a sloped EQ in certain areas, it seemed like the placement of certain instruments was changed in the vertical axis too. But overall, it seems like the presence region and the bass had the biggest impact on staging. When EQed with staging in mind, I did get my X00s to have much larger soundstage (now more out of the head than in) and got the primes to be very upfront and intimate. It really makes me wonder if this has anything to do with how the HD800 create depth, and if a depth focused EQ on the elear could bring it onto the playing field of the sound stage big boys, abeit at the cost of a great tonal flavor.

tony's picture

Dynamic Drivers
.08 milliwatt effeciency, an easy to drive 86 ohm voice coil.
A new Gold Standard.

I'm quite pleased about Equalization being a part of this Review, it's about time the Consumer folks to realize it's importance.

$4,000 should be easy for those 'collectors' who've already spent far beyond this level ( time for Ebay to do it's closet cleaning job ).

Betcha these things would be useful for evaluating various Electronics and Recording Sound Quality for guys like Bob Katz, I hope to hear his input on this.

Thanks for sharing the good news!

Tony in Michigan

ps. A high-tech advancement from a Socialist Economy, one we've never gone to war with, hmm, something strange about all this.

JacktheMac's picture

Why on earth should a socialist economy not produce high tech items ?

You sound as if you’re confusing a socialist economy with a Soviet economy. America is getting so loony tunes right wing that socialism is a dirty word. Perhaps you should visit Europe where most countries have free health care, higher educational standards and top rank literacy rates – and socialist parties either in power or the main opposition.

I don’t want to go off topic, and this will be my one and only post on the subject, but remember there is a real world outside the US where socialism and liberalism are perceived as Good Things by a large percentage of the people.

tony's picture

I quite agree, I visit Europe often and am rather envious of the Europeans. I'm working to bring those European qualities to the USA.

I included my little snipe to remind folks that France and Socialism is a very good thing creating very good things.

Your response warms my heart.

Annnnnnd, America is getting Loony Tunes, I'm glad you noticed!, Europeans I work with are amazed at how "nuts" American consumerism has become.

I hope to meet you, one day. I stand with the JacktheMacs of the World!!!

Thanks for writing,

Tony in Michigan

ps. I've been part of the Bernie Sanders infrastructure

JacktheMac's picture


In my haste to condemn I misread your comment. Apologies !

I was in NYC last month (I've lost count of the number of times I have been to the US in the last 35 years) and I guess the polarisation of GOP and Democrats scared me.

Anyway, whatever our political or economic cultures, how the heck are we are going to afford these headphones ! My Philips Fidelio IIs will have to last a while yet, though I'm intrigued by the eLears...

And yes, if I was American I'd be Bernie all the way.

tony's picture

Patience is a virtue,
posses it if you can,
seldom in a Woman,
often in a Man!

shakesphere ( i think )

Someone will buy the el-ears and then decide to buy the Utopia.
The Elears will appear on Ebay for 60%-70% of Retail, ( beautiful condition ).
You've saved and are ready.
Viola, you'll have them.

In the mean time you'll have had the advantage of letting "Impulsive - Compulsive" tendencies fade to manageable levels.

And you'll have the advantage of noticing Sennheiser's response to these new Driver technologies, perhaps creating an even more attractive set of options.

What's the hurry? Our wonderful TTVJ ( up in Montana of all places ) aptly describes how we are now rapidly advancing.

Of course, Tyll's endorsements of these transducers is causing all the up-roar, who'd believe anyone else on these matters?

Have a quick look-see at his next Wall of Fame and up-grade accordingly.

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I think even 60-70% of $1000/£800 would probably precipitate divorce proceedings in the JacktheMac household !

Tyll keeps dangling these sublime goodies on my screen. Get thee behind me !

tony's picture

That's a good one but don't try saying that to a Woman!

On the entire World Scale, you've made it up to a Quality Audio system, you are one of the "Lucky Few"!

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I know. Time to appreciate what we have. The Fidelio X2s knocked my socks off, and they can now be bought for under £200/$350.

Plus I just took delivery of a new Canon 80D to replace my ancient 30d, so I can’t complain !

tony's picture

Very nice camera, 1080P Video @ 60 frames.

Seems like we all have a Camera love.

I've limited myself to the tiny pocket Canons, I own two, an Orange Elph 100HS and the better S110. I have owned much larger Digital as well as Medium Format Film Cameras.

My view ( or take ) on headphones is that they are Dopamine activation devices. Since I'm a bit of an addict on these things and would like to "manage" my addictions, I've limited myself to the Sennheiser HD580/600/650 level. I love the HD800 and feel that "Eargasm" that Tyll talks about, the HD800 might be too addictive.

I feel compelled to own the intricate renderings experience being reported about these Elears & Utopia, plus, I'd love to own something French. The Focal people have been Siren calling me for quite some time. The Focals seem to be "Future proof" in that they are so amazingly efficient. The future, I see, is our Phones being our Hi-Fi system. ( I realize the iPhone 7 will not have a headphone jack ) Seems like a little DAC ( Mojo ) will suffice for all things musical.

With the Economic Crash of 2007 nearly 10 years behind us, I'm noticing a flood of technological advancements arriving. It has always taken a decade for Economic Bubble burst recoveries, it's about time to expect wonderful things, again! ( except for Greece, I suppose ).

Just today I'm investing in PEX expansion tubing systems for my home renovation. I've taken up plumbing as "one more hobby". I'm buying the Milwaukee M12 Pex expansion tool and a range of 1/2" and 3/4" tubing & fittings from Supply House. com. I just ( 4 days ago ) failed to properly solder up copper for a laundry sink installation, darn stuff keeps leaking. ( although I thought I knew how to solder )

Bon Vivant,

Tony in Michigan

JacktheMac's picture

I’m gobsmacked by the capabilities of the 80D. Even the photos I take with my ageing Sigma lenses are vastly improved, and the camera can do just about anything. I can’t imagine how anyone new to photography could easily get to grips with tech like this: I’m used to DSLRs, but the leap to the 80D was huge - even after owning it for a couple of weeks I’m still finding new facets.

I think you’re right about the iPhone 7 et. seq. being the new hifi. It’s an obvious direction to go after 4K video.

Admission: I bought a Cambridge DAC for my 5K iMac, the relevant software and a couple of my favourite albums in HD. I am sorry to admit that I couldn’t hear much difference – the money would have been much better spent on even better headphones !

My latest (rather enforced hobby) has been Mac networking (that’s using ethernet, wifi and Static IPs not socialising with fellow Apple fans). I managed to terminate both ends of a Cat5e cable the other day – something which gave me an inordinate amount of pride.

Sad really...


tony's picture

I have em too.

I'm happy (and staying) with 16/44.1

Tony in Michigan

IridiumEagle's picture

I would be curious to hear the vendor's precautions around the use of beryllium in the tweeters. Beryllium is a neurotoxin, so I guess I was a little surprised to hear it was being used in headphones.

Many speakers with beryllium tweeters carry warnings that if the tweeters are shattered you will be inhaling toxic dust. Shattering can apparently be triggered by simply overloading some speakers (e.g. (See the NS2000 reference on this page)
Once in your body, beryllium cannot be removed.

In the product manual, does Focal state if you have to do anything special in the event that you drop this headphone or your child puts it in its mouth, etc.?

tony's picture

There had to be a catch, darn.

I suppose you present good, sound reasoning for settling on the Alum. Coned Elear.

If it takes a long time to kill ya, it still might be ok, I'm quite old and on the Waiting list for Oakwood Cemetery.

I'll suspect the ultra compliant suspension provides the resolution improvements, not the Dome material type, these things easily respond to less than 1hz. breath movements.

I've used Beryllium in instrumentation diaphragms , it's pretty hard to fatigue it, it's kinda springy as I recall, very reliable.

If you are correct ( I have no reason to think you're not ) these Utopia phone packagings will come with Health warning stickers , just like we have for Cigarettes and Booze and Garden pesticides. ( and most children's toys, can't forget the children ).

Thanks for the warning, hmm, Audio bad for health reasons, who'd of thought. ( other than the many ProAudio folks that went deaf )

Tony in Michigan

Josuah's picture

May I suggest looking at impulse response measurements, specifically the amplitude of the initial positive and negative signals relative to each other, for depth. And channel separation / crosstalk and maybe acoustic phase for width. Punchy might be exposed via multi-tone THD measurements and impulse response decay.

Elen Kras's picture

Great review!

Elear vs HD700?
And we are still waiting full review hd700;)

AllanMarcus's picture

The HD700 is bad. Review complete.

Phoniac's picture

Fully agree.

Elen Kras's picture

Bad, but only for bassheads or for 1500+$ category.

In my opinion so many people think that they are bad is because they listening them right out the box or unheated.I am listening my pair of hd700 for more then 200 hours, I've seen how they have changed.

Harshness sometime, a the only my complaint, but overall they are amazing, impossible to find anything better it same price category(opened headphones, and it mean that you just can't find more natural sounding headphones at this price point)
Very musical, positive sound(enough dark when it need), lightweight, beautiful design, very comfortable, easy to drive.Bass is enough for any music style or movie.

AND, I think that there is no such thing as a flat frequency response.Flat is good only for studio.Because when we focus on something , especially for a long time , it becomes louder and more detailed.Usually we are more concentrating on vocals, that's why hd700 hole in the midrange , they did it on purpose because in the real world it is the only way to achieve a flat frequency response.Elear and Utopia not flat.Maybe in studio.But never when you are listening music, especially for long time.And I think that people think too much about the details , but in reality we are not so focused on the music that it plays a role, usually when listening we think about something , doing something.therefore 99 % of the time we do not notice the details of which are paying the extra $ 1000 +.That is why hd700 overall is the best headphones in a world.simply they have everything you need , they are balanced in all aspects , and in sound and design .270 grams!You just can't find better headphones for extended listening.These comfortable that you forget about them.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Gotta, they're just bad.
Elen Kras's picture

They are just not for your taste.Headphones are not only about the truth...They are about character too, about pleasure.!I will never buy headphones that reveal the truth!They are all bad, because most of music is bad because of bass(even my favorite artists - massive attack, nin, underworld).You love bass, I hate bass.And I love exaggerated highs of hd700, a lot of light , positivity , purity , energy , liveliness, love overall character, and how everything balanced, bass is never fighting with other frequencies, just amazing how musical they are.I don't care about what artist want to see in his track, I am only care about my taste, using hd700 I change the frequency of my favorite music to my taste.Elear is bad for me, and UGLY(especially Utopia),and weigh too much.The wall of fame is about your personal taste.I searched among all headphones and I chose hd700.Because of character, and they truthful but where !I! need.Beatiful, lightweight, easy to drive, bass is great from any source(try the same with hd650...)And when I watch movies I just making them much LOUDER - bass is incredible, very big and super clean.You forgot that HD700 made after hd800 and they are have that technology that even hd800 don't have.And yes, I forgot 0,03 % thd.Thx sennheiser.

Long time listener's picture

"After all, a normal stereo signal played on headphones doesn't have very many real spatial cues."

Umm...what the heck does this sentence mean? A good, *normal* stereo orchestral recording, made in a good hall, will have all the *real* spatial cues you would hear if you were there yourself. How could it not? That's why when I listen on good IEMs--whose isolation blocks out the false overlay of ambient cues from the room that mucks things up (in the case of speakers) or from sound bouncing around inside the ear cups (in the case of headphones), I get a convincing image with orchestral recordings--an image of the hall, not the headphone or my room. The idea that IEMs are inside your head is a canard. If in the case of the Utopia everything is in order--transient response, etc.,--then the answer *might* lie where the headphone is weakest. Maybe the slight lack of low bass is failing to round out the total picture. Or maybe you're just listening to studio recordings that are too closely miked and have added reverb or other effects, so that you don't actually get a natural image. A good recording with *real* ambient cues should give you a pretty good image, shouldn't it?

mat's picture

Most of the positional cues we subconsciously detect come from our head-related transfer function (HRTF), which essentially describes how our bodies affect the sound before it reaches our ears. Our HRTF does not affect the sound when listening through headphones, since the sound goes directly into our ears without really interacting with our bodies.

The exception to this would be binaural recordings. Most stereo recordings are not binaural.

Long time listener's picture

I basically understand this stuff; I know that recordings (even binaural ones) don't capture sound the way we hear it, and that no headphone delivers it the way we hear it in situ. But I just don't think it matters. I'm tired of people telling me I can't hear imaging or a soundstage when listening to IEMs, or whatever. Because regardless of whether we're listening to speakers, or on-ear of over-the-ear headphones, or IEMs, in each case what is required is, first, a passive suspension of disbelief, coupled with a more active, creative re-interpretation of the acoustic cues that allow us to assemble for ourselves an image or a soundstage. When listening to reproduced music, imaging takes place in the mind, not anywhere else. I've never thought that angled drivers or any other attempt to improve imaging made a whit of difference.

I think that when we get a beryllium-domed dynamic driver IEM, THEN we'll have the "world's best headphone." It will have everything the UTOPIA has, plus the low bass that it's missing, plus probably better imaging too. Has anyone who thinks imaging is related to transient reproduction ever noticed that many dynamic-driver IEMs are superior to over-the-ear headphones in that respect?

Elen Kras's picture

Flat is good only for studio, for instance if listening to the sounds separately from each other.In real world the only way to achieve a flat frequency response - bend given as an average listener is distributed during extended listening.Usually we are more focused on vocals so pit should be in the area.

Elen Kras's picture

In real world utopia not flat.

Bloos's picture

I would really like to see some direct comparisons between these and some electrostatics, especially the new Stax L300,L500,&L700 lambdas.

SebastianCyrrus's picture

How do they compare to T1 SE?

Three Toes of Fury's picture could buy a brand new car...(in 1986)....the Yugo.

Thanks Tyll for another great review and write up. Its good to see that these cans really nailed it for you. But honestly, at $4k, they absolutely should. Period. Anything short of that should be considered unacceptable. Frankly the same goes for any >$1k headphone. Im sure they'll each have a different profile or soundscape but there's really no conceivable reason why headphones in that range shouldnt be absolutely phenomenal sounding.

Peace .n. Living in Stereo


SebastianCyrrus's picture

Yugo was pretty popular where I'm from, you can buy one today, that doesn't burn oil for less than my dac (Denon DA 300) haha; Also inflation.

Three Toes of Fury's picture

hahahahaha! well played

SebastianCyrrus's picture

What is the purpose of carbon-fiber on headphones, apart from artificially increasing price, I think they would sell more if carbon was replaced with titanium alloy, or dare I say it, aluminum, which would probably shave
1k-2k of the price. Are few grams really that important?

tony's picture

We're using it in Cars and Airplanes as well as all manner of other devices including bicycles. It's nearly indestructible. ( I just saw it in a Cigarette lighter )

It's not all that pricy now-a-days, it's like working with fiberglass or like working with body filler for Car repairs.

Carbon Fiber has sound dampening qualities, it lowers resonance without adding mass.

It's nice stuff that we'll will be seeing much more of in the next decades.

Focal could've just as easily used it on the Elear, considering they have the production organized for the Utopia. And, maybe they will.

I'd like to see a Focal Plant Video showing the Production systems, I'm from that kind of world.

Tony in Michigan

wktenbrook's picture

Tyll, when we visited Todd Welti, I asked him about imaging, particularly related to their headphone virtualization experiment. They had an AKG K701 set up with virtual EQs selectable via tablet: no EQ, and virtual EQs for AKG K550, Audeze LCD-2, Beats Studio, Bose QC-15, and a Vmoda something. I could immediately hear the difference in tonality, but did not pay much attention to imaging. I asked Todd if they had done any studies on what parameters affect imaging, but they had not put much emphasis on this. His impression was imaging on different headphones was largely alike: inside the head.

I was puzzled by the reply as I've always sensed different imaging characteristics in headphones. I think it is related to frequency response, and largely in the midrange. More midrange emphasis places sound sources closer to the head/ears. Less midrange tends to make sources more distant. These are simple, obvious effects. Subtler changes to EQ likely impose an HRTF imprint on the sound signature for more air around the sources, wider stage, more precise placement, etc. This may have more significance for imaging than impulse response or clean CSD plots.

wktenbrook's picture

One more thing to prevent misunderstanding: Harman's headphone virtualization rig is intended to be used in a double blind mode where programmed selections are played without experimenters or listeners knowing what virtual EQ is being used, then listener preferences and impressions are quantified. The manual selection of EQ is just in the 'demo' mode.

Jazz Casual's picture

That's a rave review. The Utopia has been added to my "must audition" list.

eric65's picture

Congratulations for this great review of the Utopia that makes us want to listen this French headphone.

Surprising: with this very precise description of Utopia, you have perfectly described the sound of the Odin !!! Including the variation of the sound, depending on the centering of the front to back pads.
Only point where the Utopia seems unbeatable (compared to Odin), its comfort and weight of the headphone.


ab_ba's picture

Ah, imaging. Can headphones possibly project a stereo image, like a pair of speakers? Maybe, if you do some DSP to add your own HRTF to the sound, then perhaps you can get a convincing illusion of a soundstage suspended in front of you. Maybe one day that will be a mainstream thing to do. But, it won't be in the headphones themselves - it will be in the signal you feed them. Or, perhaps if the recording is done so well that the room reflections in the venue are captured accurately, good headphones could render that, and create an external soundstage. But even then, like Tyll says, the sense of space is probably imparted by the tone of the music - which comes from how your ears and torso filter the sound. So, we would need a BRTF (body-related transfer function), wouldn't we?

Is imaging even desirable for headphones? That seems the area where speakers excel: even good sub-$1000 speakers can give a convincing stereo image, beyond what $4000 headphones can deliver. How much does it matter, though? Imaging is a striking illusion, it can make your jaw drop during a short listen, but is it really the thing that sucks you into your music and doesn't let you go? Maybe for some people, but not for me. Besides, most of the imaging magic from speakers is their placement, and the room they are in, not their ability to render the reflections of the recording venue. Nobody listens to speakers in an anechoic chamber.

Let headphones do punch and plankton, and let speakers do imaging.

tony's picture

One of my neighbors ( Connieflyer ) is a Tube Roller, he was working with the Garage 1217 stuff and Sennheiser HD600s. He upgraded (as Tube Rollers are active in doing ) to the HD700 and seemed impressed ( momentarily ). Not quite satisfied enough, he upgraded again to the HD800.
For now he seems happy with the HD800 and his new Felikes Amp. I'm impressed with his ( Tyll like ) conclusions.

He tried the HD700 and quickly bailed out on em.

Connieflyer isn't a Innerfidelty reader so I don't think he's had the benefit of Tyll's accumulated wisdoms!

Connieflyer stays on Head-Fi's Tube rolling threads.

I'm watching these Tube-rollers to see how the Focal gets their attention. I imagine it won't take long for Focal to sweep this group.

I'm feeling swept. ( and strangely happy about it )

Tony in Michigan

Elen Kras's picture

Maybe he just hate bass and love highs even more then me)Hd800 has no bass.Maybe he EQ them...I don't know...with EQ and mods hd800 better, yes, more truthful I mean.But as I said I never buy truthful it all about taste.Hd700 for me is ENOUGH thruthful and detailed, and I don't need EQ or mod anything, I already have enough bass, very musical balance...they are smaller, easy to drive, I can take them everywhere.I think sennheiser tried to create great musical, beautiful design, comfortable headphones with the sound level very close to hd800.Hd700 is about balance...I can only say that they are definitely one of the best in world and best for me, no one still has not made more balanced, interesting and unusual headphones.just look at them...made with love...

Elen Kras's picture

All other headphones simply boring in my opninion...I think this is the best way to describe them.They are all boring.

Elen Kras's picture

Or big, ugly and hard to drive and to use, if we talking about the most expensive.700 is just everything the most people need at the current level of technology.I mean for people who not in love with big bass.

Elen Kras's picture

If we talking about opened headphones of course...if closed then you need

Elen Kras's picture

And soundstage 700 is the most realistic, balanced...hd800 is too wide, 650 is too small.700 is natural, realistic, musical sounding headphones.Perfect...

Elen Kras's picture

I really appreciate Tyll's opinion, but I think that these headphones just require more time to evaluate them, they are very special.Over 400 pages on head-if, many people happy.

tony's picture

After my mention of Connieflyer, I contacted him to discover that he still owns his HD700 and very much likes them.

I too own and love my Sennheisers.

I feel Eq, is useful and am glad to have it.

Tony in Michigan

tony's picture

After my mention of Connieflyer, I contacted him to discover that he still owns his HD700 and very much likes them.

I too own and love my Sennheisers.

I feel Eq, is useful and am glad to have it.

Tony in Michigan

Elen Kras's picture

Never used EQ but want to try with 700 for the mix-master purpose.

tony's picture

My Audiologist recommend Eq. it to all.

However it's seems only effective on Direct Radiating sources, not reflected sources. Headphones are direct radiating, rooms with walls provide reflective surfaces ( we pull our hair out over wall reflections )

Tony in Michigan

tony's picture

Of course, I agree with you. You own and enjoy one of the finest transducer systems.

Stay the course, the Audiologist Researchers at the University of Michigan tell me that our brain will equalize our ear's response sensitivity. Your brain has calibrated your hearing.

The HD700 is a very good transducer.

Tony in Michigan

Elen Kras's picture

I hope that the Tile will review 700 and hope that he will try EQ them to.When they first came out he said that they are fast, nothing more.

Elen Kras's picture

Sry, "Tyll"

Shardnax's picture

I'm a little surprised you didn't mention their earlier outing into headphones with the Spirit line. Nice to see that Focal learned from their blunder with the headband and earcups of the Classic/Pro.

Todd's picture

I would like to thank Tyll for permitting me to come over and have a listen to the Focal (and a bunch of other) headphones. We listened through the Moon Neo 430 headphone amp which I am very familiar with. It really felt like old times sitting with Tyll and playing with the worlds best headphones.
I have to say that headphone enthusiasts are very fortunate these days as there are many excellent choices for headphones and other gear. It has come a long way from the HD580 and HeadRoom Little!
The Focal headphones were a stunning listen. As good as the other headphones were, there was a clear new winner for the best overall sound. I have to admit I was shocked that the difference wasn't really that small. It was clear that the Utopia was a cut above all the competition. As was the Elear! I cant wait for them to arrive!!!
I want to personally thank Tyll for the opportunity and for the time and dedication he has made to headphone listening. Without him I don't think we would have reached this point of listening bliss. Kudos my friend!


SebastianCyrrus's picture

Hello, sorry for bothering you, but I think you have some really nice gear. I would appreciate your input, if you have Beyerdynamic T1 2nd generation, or had a chance to hear them, only phones that I can compare them to are Sennheiser hd800 S, and I like T1 more, they have less "artificial" sound to me. Anyway, how would they compare to Focal Elear and Utopia, and are there any other alternatives in your opinion.
I asked this question on multiple forums, minus Focal part, and people either fanboy over T1 and hd800, or don't have anything to compare them to.
Again sorry to bother you, I would appreciate if you can spare few minutes of your time.

sszorin's picture

If you are lucky as I have been and have T1 which was well made, which has well matched channels and which is not an early production number then you have no need to chase fata morgana and 'upgrade'. Mine does not have this excessive treble peak which some people complain about.
Either I must have been incredibly lucky or those who complain about T1 have damaged hearing and are oversensitive to treble. [Again, regarding T1 from later production run, the early ones did have an excessive treble]

SebastianCyrrus's picture

I bought Elears 6 months ago, I don't really remember how exactly HD800 and T1 sounded because they were borrowed along with amp, but after demoing Elears with my Denon DA300 there wasn't doubt in my mind that they are by far best value for money especially with additional amps required to drive T1 and HD800, maybe they are slightly better, like I said I don't exactly remember, but they defiantly aren't 3x-4x better, especially after comparing my Elear with lcd-x (my other favorite headphone). Thanks for you replay, and I have no doubt that T1 are amazing after listening them, I just wish that they and gear required to drive them weren't so expensive.

tony's picture

Even you we're "shocked"?
I'm inclined to believe you, being a Vinyl guy, I too am impressed with the great strides we enjoy. I'm from the 78 Era.

Today we have remarkable sound quality from transducers that deliver 104db from a miserly 1mw. These Utopia headphones are more efficient than In-ear stuff ( at least Focal's In-ear offerings ). I suppose my Asgard 2 is probably acting as an Attenuator more than acting as a Class A amplification.

I wonder if we need Amps anymore, the Mojo doesn't seem to have one, rather a I/V design. ( so I'm told )

Anyway, I haven't yet purchased from TTVJ, will you be offering these Focals? I'm impressed that you hurried over to hear them for yourself.

It's fascinating how all the "Planer" excitement is getting eclipsed buy a good old fashioned Dynamic voice coil system (again). Should we anticipate a Ribbon system?

I've been thru these transducer transitions since the late 1950s, I've enjoyed most of them, ( even kinda love the big Magnapans ), I've sold a hundred or so of the Quad 63 systems but my great love is for the dynamic driver transducer. ( I dearly loved my Koetsu collection, now long gone and my VPI tables, also gone ).

I hope to meet y'all, one day. I'd like to understand Montana's attractions.

Nice reading your note.

Tony in Michigan

Todd's picture

HI Tony,

yes, we are carrying the Focal headphones and expect to begin receiving them sometime in September. You can call us for info or to preorder them. 406-285-3910

I am from Michigan too. I was born and raised in the UP - Marquette to be exact. If you come out to Montana I would be happy to give you a tour of the local sights. There is a lot to see and do here!


tony's picture

I've hoped to see the Big Sky Country and Wyoming since childhood days, 35,000 feet is the closest I've gotten.

Now, it isn't even a definite maybe but a very long shot possibility.

Thank you for the kind invitation!

I'll call you when I feel like I can no longer resist the Focal urge.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I honeymooned up in Copper Harbor, I remember seeing the Stars over Lake Superior ( 50 years ago ) and hearing the Baseball Games from WJR 'the Golden tower of the Fisher Building', Tiger night games, clear as a bell, Radio 760 AM, Clear Channel, 50,000 Watts, Ground Wave Propagation. I was W8FDS/mobile at the time.
I might've had a 9 Transistor Radio but everything else was Tubes.
Back then I made my headphones from tiny portable radio speakers, I even made a folded horn with those same tiny drivers.

veggieboy2001's picture

Has anyone been following this thread on Head-Fi? Apparently there is an interesting change in SQ when swapping the pads between the Utopia & the Elear... very interesting.

tony's picture

Some fella, at Source AV, made a Video of gently blowing on the Utopia Diaphram, it can be clearly seen how responsive it is to a slight breathy type force. It's being demonstrated from both front and from the rear- thru the magnet. phew!

I've never seen a diaphram so amazingly responsive.

I wonder if the Elear has the same identical surround suspension?

Amazing stuff here!

Tony in Michigan

tony's picture

is not one of the headphones our Tyll loves. Don't hold your breath!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I don't think Tyll "hates" the 700, it's just not good "value for money" type of objections. ( I shouldn't speak for Tyll who is being polite in not offering a critical review of a Company's product )

Tony in Michigan

austinpop's picture

As a very happy HD800 w/ SD Mod user, I don't need more temptation like the Utopia and Elear! But I am eager to audition them the first opportunity I get.

As a classical music lover, I have found some of the previously vaunted superstars like Audeze and Mr Speakers to be quite underwhelming compared to the HD800, which I find particularly outstanding for well-recorded acoustic music, like most classical recordings are. Acoustic, that is - not all are well-recorded!

I will be curious to see how the Focals fare relative to the HD800 with this genre.

Elen Kras's picture

Hi, can you please tell me what albums are you listening through hd800?I Want to try on my hd700.

sszorin's picture

Oh my God, Audez'e wares for classical music ? Won't do. Not nimble enough and not enough treble. Their SQ is wrong for the music of the pre-pop era. I am not familiar with Mr Speakers headphones but I would say that the planar magnetics are not a good fit for classical music. Especially the music for large orchestra and even more so when the large orchestra is combined with a choral section
. Planar magnetics do not present convincing enough soundscape for the classical composers to play in. They might manage to accommodate small ensembles and some chamber music, but not all of them.
I found LCD2 to be an utter failure regarding the ability to play classical music, LCDX / LCDX-C was a bit better but still 'not there'.
They are strictly for the modern rhythmic thumping music with distorted and manipulated sound of instruments.

JaZZ's picture

«The other area that's rather unusual is that the image is not very big or deep. Previously, I've been of the opinion that good imaging on headphones is primarily due to good transient response. I figured clean edges provide the cues needed to localize sound better. I've also had the impression that headphones that image deeply tend to lack dynamic punch, and headphones with punch tend not to image well. Having now heard the Utopia I'm beginning to call these observations into question.»

I share your observations about depth and punch. It's quite a bit puzzling, but a fascinating challenge to philosophize about the cause. In the speaker world, which I was familiar with and active as a (hobbyist) speaker builder till a few years ago, I thought that ribbon transducers, primarily tweeters, offered the most detail and the highest resolution. But they suffered from two aspects: poor (vertical) dispersion and lack of punch/attack, at least in comparison to dynamic transducers with hard membranes (the harder, the more bite!). With one of my prototypes ( ) I tried to avoid the former limitation, but although I was passably successful, the more natural dispersion with a consequentially more even distribution of direct and reflected sound couldn't make up for the handicap in terms of attack. So I ended up with hard dome tweeters.

Yes, what's the cause? I use to circle around a favorite theory of mine which sounds plausible, but doesn't provide any in-depth explanation. Both foil and cone/dome membranes have the task to move air – an elastic, resilient medium. It constantly sends the applied pressure back to the membrane. The more massive and the harder the membrane, the less of a challenge it is for it. But ultra-thin and -light foils are largely sound-permeable. So there's always the question: What does actually happen in above scenario? There seems to be a conflict between the task of moving air by applying pressure and the inherent property of making almost no resistance to the resilient air molecules. Now the difficulty is to deduce a plausible mechanism for a reduction of sonic «pressure».

«What I'm getting at here, I think, is that depth of image on a headphone may not be something achieved with accuracy as much as it might be an illusion caused by a change in tonal response. After all, a normal stereo signal played on headphones doesn't have very many real spatial cues. Maybe, when done really well, headphone reproduction will not have a very spacious image, just a tight clean one. Food for thought... love to hear your comments on this idea.»

Your observation is interesting. And fascinating – since they somehow confirm a logical dependency of headphones from acoustic openness for an open, 3-dimensional music reproduction. What... the Utopia is an open headphone? Yes, of course! But it is less «open» (so to speak) than the HE1000 and the HD 800 in one decisive aspect: Its membrane is harder than the HD 800's and much harder than the HE1000's. That means it's virtually impermeable for sound waves – apart from low frequencies. With speaker drivers the hard membrane is a great plus without any downside apart from the fact that they call for steep crossover filters. In the headphone world, on the other hand, hard membranes will inevitably reflect the reflections from the outer ear back to the outer ear and so on... sort of a flutter echo. My damping mod on the HD 800 had the goal of reducing such reflections in the first place in the interest of signal accuracy and purity. Covering the membrane itself accordingly would have come with too much sonic loss, so I left it, as well as the (half-permeable) metal mesh, which is in fact there to produce good-natured reflections (helping to simulate a flat wave front). BTW, I have experimented with velvet-covered cone membranes on fullrange speakers. The spatial depth this feature created was absolutely impressive, but over-all the sound had become too matte to be fully enjoyable – at least to my ears.

Where are we? Yes, the HiFiMan HE1000 with Silver (Dragon) cable, driven by Chord's DAVE, equalized, is my absolute favorite these days. One of its strengths is spatial depth, particularly with the DAVE. I don't know what exactly the goal behind the asymmetric magnet array was, but I doubt it is really beneficial for the driving force or a symmetrical magnet field. In any event it seems to be a successful way of reducing sonically offensive reflections of the produced sound waves at the magnet bars and between magnet bars and outer ear. The trick seems to be in the step between the thin inner bars and the thicker outer bars, representing a «smeared»/distributed reflection source with maybe even some cancellation potential for multiple reflections. Of course that's just speculation. In any event the ultra-thin membrane guarantees an easy escape route for sound waves reflected at the outer ear. And that's what I consider essential for the identification of spatial cues on the recording. Since spatial depth is defined by the degree of reverberation caused by a musical instrument in the first place and since reflections within headphone ear cups and those between membrane and ear are so similar in nature to the reverb effect on a recording, they will mask the latter enough to considerably diminish the sense of depth.

I haven't heard the Utopia yet, but would like to and probably will soon.

BTW, I don't agree at all on your characterization of the HE1000 as «technically flawed». At least when equipped with a (good) aftermarket cable and properly equalized (it took me quite a while to find the ideal curve!).

Cotnijoe's picture

In the HD 800 S review, you mentioned that you still prefer the HD 800 when EQ'ed. What is the comparison like between an EQ'ed HD 800 and the Utopia?

I follow a similar EQ curve that you did in the Big Sound 2015 article and wanted to know how that compares to the Utopia.

Daneel's picture

Hi Tyll!

I think transient response is a function of mechanics – how responsive the diaphragm / voice-coil assembly is to the „stimulation“ of the magnetic circuit. Materials used play a vital role here although they do not by any means warrant anything on their own.

On the other hand, ound stage is a function of geometry – the surface of the diaphragm and hpw the sound waves reach the ear. Materials play less of a role here and the goal is to minimise the effect of standing waves on the surface of the diaphragm. I do not believe this can be achieved with a dome structure even though domes, naturally, have inherently a wide dispersion angle. Dome also is in the function of transient response since structurally, it can „transfer“ more stress to it's surrounding outer rim without flexing than a flat-surface diaphragm of equal diameter and thickness ever could. Given the hardness of material used for this specific dome, it probably explains the excellent transient response and low distortion. But for the reasons of geometry, sound image has to be planar.

As for the headphone's outer construction, carbon fiber formulations have a Young's modulus of elasticity that is, remarkably, five times greater than that of steel (approx. 900 vs 210 kN/mm2) even though steel is an isotropic material. It is used in long-span cable-suspended bridges and suspension springs that help prevent damage to structures during earthquakes. It does not squeak!  At least, it should not squeak. At 4.000 Euros, I think we ought to reserve the right for a little bit of criticism.


babmusician's picture

hi all, currently i have the new jecklin float QA and am very happy. but it has no deep bass. but great imaging and very linear dynamic sound. i used it for mixing classical music.
have you guys compared it to the focal utopia?

The Federalist's picture

Now that the Focal headphones are making it out into the wild, a number of people are giving the Focal cans a restrained thumbs up.... Few are giving them a thumbs down but the Head-fi threads seem to show a far more reserved opinion on them.

I just got mine yesterday. I listened to the Elear on a Luxman integrated tube amp with a headphone jack and was absolutely floored. Absolutely stunning. I actually thought my LCD2 was malfunctioning after switching from Elear because it sounded so anemic after the fact.

Then I plugged Elear in to my portable iDSD and it sucked all the life out of the music. It wasn't a minor difference either.... All the energy and dynamism in the bass disappeared.... The Elear suddenly became rather anemic and didn't sound much better than the HD800 or T1 in much of any regard.

Just curious if this could be an impedance mismatch because the iDSD is overdamping the driver, or just a matter of output power.

Never seen such a night and day difference between two amps, but I was thinking this variance may be part of why peoples views on the Focal gears are markedly different.

ultrabike's picture
Just started listening to these. These are really good!
ultrabike's picture
Listened for a little longer. Do not like. Treble issues.
UtzY's picture

Hi Tyll,
I saw here innerfidelity, a review, that I cannot find anymore. It was about a magazine full with different acoustic materials (felt, canvas) I cannot recall more about it.
Can you please point me in the right direction if it's not too much?

Greg_Sargent's picture

Hi Tyll, you have commented about the lack of soundstage width with the Utopia. I was wondering if you only used the standard 6.5mm jack or did you do any testing with a balanced cable? Regards Greg

eric65's picture

Hi Tyll.

Another great review where we compare Utopia to Odin and some other great headphones:

jaredjcrandall84's picture

If i am just a casual listener (no audiophile background) would I be able to readily discern between the elear and utopia?


Hifihedgehog's picture

As breathtakingly elegant and aesthetically pleasing as it is, the Utopia's response curves strays far too dark and subdued in the uppermost registers to a fault, more so than the HD 800 with its well-documented 6 KHz peak is bright. A pitfall many audio enthusiasts are falling into is mistaking the Utopia's ultra low distortion for absolute clarity, which requires the synergy of both ultra low distortion and a neutral sound response for it to be achieved. Of its most positive attributes, the Utopia is extraordinarily clean sounding thanks to its world record breaking distortion numbers for a dynamic driver headphone, lending well into allowing all frequencies through without any shortage of aplomb or finesse. However, its treble is shelved down by a plainly audible 5 to 10 decibels in an apparent attempt to emulate and imbue the stereotypical "warm and cozy" audiophile sound profile of nostalgia. Cymbals, for example, simply do not radiate with their crystalline intensity in the real world as they ring and decay from the initial clash to the subsequent trailing sizzle. Admittedly, equalizing the treble regions up from their relaxed audiophile sound profile is a rather easy task to perform as the Utopia is as low in distortion as the best electrostats and it accordingly responds to any equalization with absolute precision, at which point they sound hauntingly lifelike like no other dynamic headphone ever created. However, in my estimation, it is a sorely unforgivable fatal flaw for the Utopia as a $4000 product to require such drastic equalization and I will continue to recommend other low- (Sennheiser HD 800), mid- (HiFiMAN HE-1000) and upper-tier (Sennheiser Orpheus) flagship products in its stead.

absolutperception's picture

When you read what is written about the Utopias you might perhaps be enticed to order them unheard. Don't. You cannot argue about taste, but I was rather dissappointed after having tried these repetadly in different stores with varoius amps such as Moon 430 HA or Sennheiser.
While i can listen for hours with tne Senneheisers 800s without fatigue, the Utopias sat very tight with their fairly small cup diameter and within few minutes they felt uncomfotably warm, as a pair of sealed phones.
The SQ is undoubtedly somewhat more extended and seemingly rich than that of the Sennheiser but also more intense, narrowly focused and tiring for my ears.
Others may enjoy that character but in my mind it was colored and irritating. The Sennheisers have a more neutral, relaxed, airy ,panoramic and dispersed character that is much more easy on the ears without missing any details. With the Moon 430 HA the Senns are all but thin or lacking in bass which is very well defined and not as bloated, yes bloated, as I felt it was in the the Utopias.
Also the ,as a matter of fact, quite outdated and non-ergonomic design and heaviness of the Utopias is a major drawback. If you have a top notch headphone amp, the Senns are more than good enough, particularly in balanced mode, to pay the premium for the Utopias, that are in severeal aspects an unsatisfactory construction, that leave you wanting something else.