Recently, while taking a break from reviewing two-channel gear, I became fascinated by the goings-on in the headphone community. This is part story, part review of how this happened. As much as my time permits I plan to explore high-end products that have appeared in the headphone space. I was quite impressed by the headphones from the French powerhouse Focal when I contributed some impressions of their Stellia to this PTA review. A new offering from Focal now has the head-fi crowd buzzing; the updated Focal Utopia 2022.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Like most other audiophiles, I owned headphones in my youth. It was a way to get closer to a recording without spending money I didn’t have. I think my first pair was a Yamaha HP-3 or something. Later as my music production career took shape, I owned a Sony MDR-V7. Annoyingly bright but suitable for critical listening to check something I was mixing. Great to use quietly at night because at a moderately loud level, the high freqs would take my head off!
Even then, I had some idea of how different gear made those phones sound their best. There wasn’t much in the way of dedicated headphone amps back in those days. However, it was apparent to most recording engineers which model of DAT machine or recording console headphone outputs sounded best. Best, meaning which headphone output made an AKG-240 or Fostex T-20 sound loud and clean. Not much subtlety back then. At home, my Sonys plugged into a Panasonic SV-3800 DAT machine sounded pretty rad.
Fast forward to my use of headphones to work remotely. I like to travel but I can’t afford not to work, especially for longer periods when I’m at my partner’s place near Seattle. Summers there are especially delicious.
I’d much rather do music mastering on speakers, but Linda’s place is small and not suited to a speaker setup. Plus over the years, I’ve broken the old taboo and gotten very good results on phones – even as a mixer. I mixed a lot of projects on some Sennheiser HD-580s. It’s just harder and requires more mental effort.
Recently, I thought it might be cool to look for an alternative to the Audeze LCD-X cans that I had been using for the past eight years. My experience with the Stellia and a brief audition of the original Utopia came to mind. Much thanks to Wendy Knowles at Focal Naim America for getting me this hot property in such short order. I haven’t decided yet if I wanna switch to the Focal Utopia 2022 headphones for work, but I’ll tell ya, these things sound incredible.
Focal Utopia 2022: In Use
I don’t have much owner experience with other top-shelf headphones, but the packaging that the Utopia came in is as sumptuous and impressive as the sound. A large, heavy-duty, black leather-covered box with form-fitting inserts for the cans. A smaller box holds the cables and a leather pouch for the owner’s manual and other info. It’s like the case for the toolkit you get in the trunk of an upper-level BMW: unnecessary but nice. Then again, I suppose niceties like this should be included with a $5,000 headphone.
A beefy 4-pin XLR cable and a separate but thinner-looking cable with a mini plug and ¼” adaptor are included. On these cans, Focal uses a mini-Lemo style for the ends that connect to the earpads. I’m not the first to comment on how frustrating it is that no standard exists for this cable-to-driver connection. What if there were like five different styles of terminals on the back of loudspeakers? That’s how it is in headphones. PLEASE guys, can y’all get together and decide on a connector? If professional audio engineers, some of the most opinionated people on the planet can adopt 3-pin XLR as the standard for line-level connectors, I think you guys can figure something out.
Before I go into my sonic impressions of the Focal Utopia 2022, I wanna point something out for those readers not as familiar with the landscape of high-end headphones: every piece in the system has more of an audible effect than I’ve experienced with two-channel systems. This is why the cable connection to the earpad is a big deal for me. I spent a lot of money to get a Siltech cable for my LCD-X, which of course, I was not able to use on the Utopia because of the Audeze mini-XLR style connector not being a Lemo mini. I’m of the opinion that cables exhibit a more apparent sonic difference on high-end headphones than on a typical loudspeaker system.
So do the amplifier and the DAC. Tube rolling in vacuum tube headphone amps is extremely audible. I have one head-fi friend who uses different octal driver tubes for different headphones.
Depending on your personality, this hyper-tunability for a given headphone either makes the head-fi game lots of fun, or massively neurotic. For me, I might use the term neurotically fun. 🙂
My first order of business was to see which headphone amp I had on hand matched the best with the Utopia 2022. I tried a Naim Uniti Atom (headphone edition), Ampsandsound Red October, Auris Nirvana and the headphone output in my mastering studio transfer console made by Knif Audio. This was more complicated than it could have been for a few reasons:
The 300B powered Red October from Ampsandsound was ordered with no volume attenuator because I had only ever intended to use it with a preamp. I always couple it with my RME ADI-2 DAC fs. The RME is a great tool to use because the DAC is very clean, as well as the preamp electronics that are part of the volume control. It also has a badass digital eq section to touch up the response in a headphone or loudspeaker. This is a much more accepted thing in head-fi and pro-audio circles than in the two channel world.
The gorgeous EL-34 powered Auris Nirvana amp I borrowed had a built in preamp with volume control. I could take a direct output of my BorderPatrol SE-i DAC into the RCA inputs on the rear panel of the Auris. Cardas Beyond Clear and Empirical Design ED22 were both tried. I liked the Empirical Design cable a bit more, because of its tendency to add air to the high frequency response of the Focal Utopia 2022. Cardas Beyond Clear is wonderfully neutral. At this point the Utopias sounded great, and I felt done with swapping stuff out for tweaking purposes. Yeah, right.
I won’t even go into the Uniti Atom and Knif console – suffice it to say after a crazy amount of switching things around I determined several things: the Ampsandsound Red October is a vastly superior headphone amp (at least for the Focal Utopia 2022), the Red October didn’t love being driven by my VAC Master Preamp as much as by the RME ADI-1 so I stuck with the RME until late in this review when I borrowed the excellent Meitner MA-3 DAC/Streamer. The Meitner has a volume control so I could theoretically get the purest signal direct into the Red October. Not so fast, Batman.
The Meitner, while in many ways a better sounding DAC than my BorderPatrol, was a close runnerup to the RME ADI-1. So, I used the RME/Red October combo for the bulk of my listening impressions.
So What’s New?
Well, I’ve been working out and riding my bike a lot more lately. I found a new coffee bean that I’m very into – oh you mean with the Focal Utopia 2022?
As I said earlier, I thought the original Utopia was a fantastic sounding headphone but apparently Focal took note of some user comments and after almost 10 years in the market felt like some improvements could be made. That is a bit different than some companies that seem to have a latest and greatest MkII or new model to offer the public every year or so. Much respect to Focal.
Notably, the new Focal Utopia 2022 is a bit smoother in the high mid/low treble region and overall a bit cleaner sounding. Reducing distortion while at the same time smoothing out the top end is always a winning formula in my book.
The changes can be summed up by this official info I copy and pasted from Focal cause I’m a lazy s.o.b.
A new voice coil was developed for the new Utopia. Focal wanted to improve the best reliability for the new Utopia. This one is made of Aluminum (material of previous Utopia voice coil) and copper – approx. 30% of copper and 70% of aluminum (because aluminum is a lighter material). It was a challenge to find a new voice coil without compromising the sound quality, a lot of research on mix of materials etc. to achieve this.
Previous Utopia was 100% copper clad aluminum
Other Focal headphones like Clear, Clear Mg, and Focal closed-back headphones have 100% copper voice coil.
Here, for New Utopia, Focal wanted best reliability, and made a mix between aluminum (70%) to keep the lightness and a bit of copper for best reliability.
Sonic upgrade: Focal changed the driver grill, with the ‘M’ shape grill that was developed with Clear Mg. The new grill perfectly follows the shape of the dome and driver inside, so it reduces the gap between the driver and the grill. Reducing the gap helps in the linearity of the frequency response, mostly for trebles. The M-shaped drivers and M-shaped grills enable even clearer and more accurate musical reproduction.
+ also did a bit of tuning, to now have a more ‘neutral’ sound signature, and keep impacted low end thanks to the Beryllium, very quick and impacting low ends, but reduced a little bit the trebles to have a more balanced sound signature
Design overhaul, so this more clearly looks like the flagship model of Focal’s headphone family, with its distinctive honeycomb styling. This is NOT just about looking good: the honeycomb design enables a more open sound, with greater driver movement. + new codes for Utopia that will come in the future in other Utopia Focal products – red magnet (behind the black grill behind the driver) + the yin & yang pattern which embodies the perfect balance between the technology and the design
Premium materials – new yokes forged recycled carbon fiber, genuine leather, aluminum, etc.
While much of the core Utopia awesomeness remains (and Focal downplays the changes), I would almost consider this a redesign. It certainly takes the Focal Utopia 2022 up a very large notch.
Focal Utopia 2022–The Sound
Now for the fun part. What do these grands garçons sound like? Once I got past all the tweaking, I had many rapturous listening sessions with the Focal Utopia 2022 headphones – some lasting for 3 hours or more.
After settling on the core system being the RME fed by my Innuos Zen Mini and Qobuz, into the Red October, I did some tube rolling. Scoring a pair of Western Electric 300B direct heated triodes for the Red October took things from a nice vacation mountain view to living in Xanadu.
During the setup and fine-tuning phase, I cycled through a handful of my familiar test tracks by Snarky Puppy, Fiona Apple, Beck, Bob Schneider, Suzanne Vega, and others. Once settled in, I luxuriated in the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, Duke Ellington, Muse, The Fabulous Thunderbirds (Painted On is a favorite), Kendrick Lamar, Common, Gerry Gibbs, Beethoven, The Avett Brothers, Chuck Prophet, Danger Mouse, Rage At The Machine, Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief, Becca Stevens with the Attacca String Quartet, and about a zillion others.
In the way that I most enjoy two-channel listening, the Focal Utopia 2022 headphones are so good that it’s very easy to stop analyzing and simply vibe with the tunes. There is something about headphone listening in general that readily gets a listener in this zone. It was definitely that way for me. I found myself reaching for the Utopias to put on even when I wasn’t oriented toward getting listening impressions for this review.
The midrange on the Focal Utopia 2022 is a thing of great beauty. Smooth but not glossed over. Lots of harmonic and dynamic complexity without being overbearing. It’s not exactly a wet sound but nowhere near the dry zone. I found the area from roughly 100 to 10K to be money. While the Utopias don’t quite have the large dynamic scale and jump factor that my Audeze LCD-Xs have, the micro-dynamics and frequency response more than makes up for it.
As far as the frequency extremes, my reaction depended on the stuff I played.
The low end below 100 hz is quite linear with no exaggeration, quick and clean with sufficient objectively perceivable depth to be very satisfying. While the Focal Utopia 2022 never sounded lean, it doesn’t quite have the bombast below 60 hz that I hear in my LCD-X. The Utopia has a more refined sense of punchiness. Even for a bass freak like me, I don’t need to have my skull pounded if I play hip hop or some kind of techno. Other listeners might want the brain melt. The Focal Utopia 2022 has plenty of linear, defined, deep, and satisfying bass, if not the last word in over-the-top sub-performance.
Regarding the other frequency extreme, I could say something similar about the top end. The highs have a similar Goldilocks quality as in the bass. It’s all there, but not too much or too little. Detailed, fast, clean, extended, but not remotely overbearing. I like this. I like it a lot.
At first, I felt like the Focal Utopia 2022 lived a bit in the too warm spectrum. Then again with some amps, the top felt a little too clinical. In the end, I realized that while the Utopia is fairly easy to drive it does scale greatly depending on what is going on upstream. I would expect nothing less of a great hi-fi loudspeaker. To this end, I searched and arrived at a setup that would give me everything the Utopia has to offer in the lower/upper treble and air regions.
Using the Empirical Designs single-ended cables going from the RME to the Red October, and then tube-rolling my heart out by swapping out the JJ 300Bs for a Western Electric pair along with NOS Mullard 5AR4 rectifiers and a Sylvania 12at7 instead of a JJ or Gold Lion 12ax7, was absolutely the bee’s knees and a perfect complement to what the Utopia wanted for sitting tall in the saddle. I never felt the need to engage any dsp eq in the RME. Not a drop.
I even got a large degree of imaging with this setup. Head-fi nuts know imaging is kind of the final frontier in uber head-fi. I did not get quite the loudspeaker variety of imaging, yet with some recordings, a very convincing front-to-back sensation of depth that made the wide stuff seem less disconnected.
Focal Utopia 2022: Last Call
Yes, at $5,000 the Focal Utopia 2022 swims in the deepest end of the SOTA headphone pool. It’s extremely well built, visually attractive, very comfortable to wear for long listening sessions, and sounds great with almost any decent headphone amp. It also will scale to as high as you care to go (spend?)
For the headphone nuts out there, this is a slam dunk. For the high end headphone curious – that can spend some cash – put these on your shortlist to audition. You can thank me later.
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