“an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”
The term “Utopia” is quite the evocative moniker. It’s also not thrown around lightly, usually being reserved for only the most idyllic and perfectly realised of concepts. Until recently, hearing it uttered was enough to give me flashbacks of my high school English Utopias and Dystopias course, where we were forced to trudge through Thomas Moore’s 1551 work of fiction of the same name (...and which still gives me a bit of PTSD to this day). However, with the 2016 launch of the (then) flagship headphone model from Focal, the word “Utopia” took on a new meaning for me - it became the reference point against which all other headphones should be measured: in terms of sound, design, as well as sheer opulence.
If you’re more of a headphone fan then you might not know that Focal also has over 40 years of experience developing speakers, and the label “Utopia” also gets applied to only the crème de la crème among their line-up. If you haven’t had the chance to hear them already, I highly recommend popping by the Addicted To Audio Melbourne store before you die to check out the subliminal Focal Grande Utopia EM Evo - it really is a life-changing experience.
Anyhow, back to the subject of headphones, the original Focal Utopia Reference High End Dynamic Headphones have rightly stood as a near-unassailable benchmark in the world of head-fi for six years, and they remain to be an extraordinary piece of audio engineering, as well as being simply an extraordinary sounding pair of headphones. I’ve had the chance to enjoy them and listen to them frequently over the years in my experience as an audio reviewer and hifi fan, and there’s nothing quite like them. Listening to them is a bit like “mainlining” detail, being exceptionally resolving and incisive in character. I’ve always tended to use the original Utopia as somewhat of a “palette cleanser” - if I’ve been listening to other headphones for a while, it’s good to come back to the Utopia from time to time to remind myself what actual detail sounds like, and to blow away the cobwebs from my ears with a dose a sheer, unbridled resolution. The Utopia is a bit like having an espresso at the end of a three-course meal. However, I can’t drink espresso all day. And as brilliant as the original Utopia is, it would tend to get a little too much for my ears, and so I’ve thought of them as a “special occasion”/”treat yo’ self” pair of cans. But that’s just me - I know many happy owners who are more than happy to bliss out with the Utopia all day, and I can totally understand why.
So, when you have a headphone that is regarded by many as being already “perfect”, how might you go about improving it? Well, rather than giving the Utopia an overhaul, Focal has rather sought to give the Utopia a mid-life “revamp” of sorts, with the release of the brand-new Focal Utopia V2 Reference High End Dynamic Headphones, which are available now for you to demo at Addicted To Audio, and to take home for $6999. The new 2022 Utopia (Newtopia? UTWOpia?) has been designed as an improvement on the original model, featuring a mild aesthetic refresh, tweaks to the voice coil (plus other structural changes), and a mild re-tuning based on feedback from customers.
But, perhaps what is most telling is what has been unchanged in the new 2022 Utopia. As well as keeping the Utopia’s overall form factor largely intact, Focal has continued to use the same 40mm pure beryllium (the fourth-lightest element on the periodic table, thank you high school chemistry) “M”-shaped dome drivers as the original Utopia. And seeing that they were already extracting incredible performance from these transducers, that stands to reason.
Whether you’re already familiar with the “OG” Utopia, or just finding out about the new one, let’s take a look at the overall product experience for the new 2022 Utopia so you can get an idea as to what the overall package entails from the moment you open the (very nice) box.
Focal Utopia 2022 packaging and presentation
Focal’s headphone packaging and accessory treatment are among the best in the business, and they’ve certainly gone all-out with the flagship product experience for their new top-of-the-range headphone. The new Utopia arrives in an ultra-premium storage box, clad in a black leather-like material and appropriately embossed with that name that has become synonymous with “high-end headphones”.
Inside, the new Utopia is safely stowed inside a dark-grey rigid clamshell-style zippered case that could genuinely pass for a piece of high-end carry-on luggage. Perhaps they ought to release a new product line. Nestled alongside the case you’ll find another leather-clad display box that unfolds to reveal a document case (more leather!) containing the Utopia user guide, plus a three-metre XLR cable finished with a high-quality Neutrik connector.
Inside the headphone case, Focal also provides a 1.5-metre single-ended cable terminated with a 3.5mm connection along with a 6.3mm screw-on adapter. The full-sized XLR cable signifies that the Utopia is intended to be a “proper” hifi pair of headphones, suitable for pairing with only the most discerning and premium of source equipment, while the smaller cable is more convenient should you wish to use the Utopia with portable sources - which is entirely do-able given its 80-ohm, 104dB sensitivity (I don’t need to tell you that you shouldn’t use them with an iPhone dongle, however).
The cables are finished in a sturdy, rubberised coating and are a huge improvement over Focal’s previous generation of fabric-coated cables which tended to get microphonic at times, and were a bit of a pain to live with. Like the previous Utopia, the cables for the 2022 model connect at the ear cups using the same “Lemo”-type connectors. This system is fairly uncommon but provides a stable connection that’s still relatively easy to take in and out. While the Utopia’s cables are entirely up to scratch from an ergonomics and sonic standpoint, it’s understandable why many Utopia owners go to lengths to seek appropriately-premium aftermarket cables to pair with their flagship headphones. I borrowed a Cardas Audio Beyond Clear Headphone Cable for testing with the new Utopia, and its added pliability and tendency not to kink (which the stock cable can do) upped the overall “luxury” feeling of the Utopia to even greater heights.
Focal Utopia 2022 design and features
The outward design of the new Utopia isn’t a far cry from the original model, bearing largely the same signature accentuated black aesthetics. However, a few subtle changes in materials and industrial design have definitely dragged the Utopia into a new decade in the looks department, and it’s a definite “win” in my books. Gone is the mesh from the outside of the cups on the original Utopia, and in its place is a dark hexagonal grille pattern that’s similar to that seen on the (rather handsome) Focal Clear MG.
The blacked-out “FOCAL” branding and use of a more discrete Focal “flame” logo in place of the silver-coloured mesh on the original model combine to give the 2022 Utopia a “stealthier” vibe that’s altogether more purposeful-looking, and mildly less ostentatious than the OG model. The honeycomb-shaped grille on the new Utopia is apparently also functional as well as aesthetic, helping to ensure a properly “open” design that allows for correct airflow and decompression of the beryllium drivers.
Carbon fibre has been retained as the material for the Utopia’s yokes for both strength and overall weight reduction, but the “checkerboard” pattern on them has been replaced by a swirling, mottled effect on the new model. Plush, genuine leather is used on the Utopia’s headband, and Focal has again chosen perforated lambskin for its sumptuous ear pads, which work in concert to make the Utopia among the most comfortable and luxurious-feeling headphones to ever sit on this reviewer’s head.
The Utopia is still a large and substantial headphone at 490 grams, yet Focal’s overall design and choice of materials help to distribute its weight well, and make it feel lighter than its half-kilo weight would otherwise suggest. The Utopia clamps firmly, yet not aggressively so on my ears, aided by the softness of the memory foam in the ear pads that are ergonomically angled to provide a good seal while providing plenty of room inside the ear cups. Wearing the new Utopia is a bit like having your head “hugged” by a leather cushion, and it’s a hug that I’m happy to keep receiving for hours at a time. I didn’t experience any soreness, hotspots, or fatigue whatsoever while enjoying the Utopia - it’s every bit as luxurious an experience as you’d expect for a headphone with its reputation and asking price.
The revisions to the 2022 Utopia aren’t purely aesthetic. Focal has also done some tinkering with its inner workings to help improve its performance, reliability, and ultimately the way it sounds. A new copper/aluminium voice coil has been used to improve its weight and strength over the previous version (which was purely aluminium). The honeycomb grille covering the driver has also been upgraded on the 2022 Utopia, which is now “M”-shaped to mirror the contours of the beryllium drivers and improve the precision and linearity of the sound reaching your ears.
While the Utopia’s 40mm beryllium drivers remain untouched, making these mechanical changes was done deliberately to improve its sonic performance over the outgoing model, and minor changes to the driver structure and airflow assembly are bound to have noticeable effects. I found that the changes in tuning to Focal’s Clear MG were quite an audible departure from the original Clear, and the decision to go with a new warmer presentation wasn’t a choice that I necessarily agreed with (as my preferences go, anyway). So, I was very curious to see whether Focal had given the Utopia - a singularly distinctive-sounding headphone - a similar “warming”-over, and whether it would still continue to stand out as a reference benchmark worthy of the “Utopia” name.
Listening to the Focal Utopia 2022
Right out of the gates, a few things are apparent when it comes to the new edition of the Utopia. Firstly, it still sounds very much like the old Utopia, and the familiar relationship is immediately apparent - they’re far more alike than they are different. They’re still brutally revealing detail monsters that leave nothing on the table when it comes to giving the listener a vivid, engaging and insightful look into the inner workings of a mix. The 2022 Utopia also has the same level of excitement and macrodynamic “slam” - more so than any other headphone I’ve spent time listening to - and which gives the Utopia a singularly “speaker-like” characteristic, which is perhaps not all that surprising given Focal’s storied history creating high-end speakers.
Fortunately, I was able to start my testing with what is most definitely an absolute “reference” DAC/amp pairing in the form of the Bryston BDA-3 Digital Analogue Converter and Simaudio MOON 430HA Headphone Amplifier - about as quality a source chain as you’ll manage with any pair of headphones. Some headphones will give you a sense of detail and resolution by “shouting” at you aggressively with over-exaggerated sonic peaks, but not so the Utopia. No matter how hectic and convoluted a track, it always gives you the feeling that it’s remaining composed, in control, and sure-footed as it simply recreates every last iota of a track in a way that’s lifelike and utterly exciting.
Next, with the same 80-ohm impedance and 104dB sensitivity rating as the OG Utopia, the new 2022 model is still a relatively easy headphone to power. They’ll happily get loud from modest sources - even portable ones - but given their revealing nature, the Utopia will be brutally revealing of the quality of the upstream source that you’re feeding them. Feed it with high-quality music from a decent source and it’ll reward you with immersion and refinement like nothing else you’ve ever heard, while its technical abilities will make you grin stupidly.
The Utopia sounded superb listening via the Astell&Kern A&futura SE200 Digital Audio Player, offering as detailed and dynamic experience as you’ll ever experience without plugging a source into the wall. Moving back to a dedicated desktop rig did up the ante in terms of the Utopia’s bass definition and upper air extension, but unlike any other flagship-tier headphone it’s possible to extract audiophile-grade performance from it with a battery-powered source - this shouldn’t be overlooked.
If the previous Utopia could be described as an “incisive take on neutral”, the 2022 edition could be labelled as a “powerful take on neutral”. It’s still very much a bright and electrifying listen, but whereas the OG Utopia had a tendency to sound dry and spicy - particularly in the treble - the 2022 Utopia has a denser, “wetter” overall quality that makes for a more coherent listen, even during the frenetic avant-garde progressive jazz of Krokofant’s Bodega, where the Utopia always feels one step ahead of the sudden changes in tempo, rendering the cacophony of cymbals, electric guitar and sax with impossible precision.
The treble doesn’t sail quite so close to the sun, making it more of a candidate for longer listening sessions, while a degree more tonal mass in the lowest octave lends the new Utopia a more solid foundation that makes it a more balanced headphone to listen to. Ultimately, the 2022 Utopia is more of an all-rounder when it comes to genres, and I genuinely believe that it will appeal to a broader range of listeners as a result. However, before you go thinking that the 2022 Utopia might be your cup of tea for a “relaxed” tuning, think again - there are no passengers here. The Utopia still very much keeps you on the front of your seat for a “lean-in” listening session that is never boring. Timbre-wise, the new Utopia still has a distinctly metallic “sheen” to its voicing, but it’s not quite as chrome-polished as its forebear - it’s able to represent instruments and voices in a more organic fashion than its planar-magnetic counterparts. While the Audeze LCD-5 might have deeper, flatter bass and the HIFIMAN Susvara might have faster transient characteristics, there’s simply no replacing a dynamic driver - for my tastes - when it comes to reproducing the innate textures of real instruments or the human voice. Resolution-wise, the Focal flagship is able to tango with both of these other flagships when it comes to overall detail - and that’s saying something.
The Mars Volta was responsible for some of the most incomprehensibly wild music of my early 20’s, and I was excited to hear that they’d just released a new self-titled album after a ten-year hiatus. While it’s a pop-ier, more accessible offering from them, it’s still quite very much an eclectic psychedelic record, and the Utopia is an absolutely electrifying way to devour their latest offering. Their greater bass impact is appreciated in the track Blank Condolences, balancing slam and definition with absolute aplomb. The more visceral, physical low-end presentation in the new Utopia fills you with a real sense of groove, while the ever-so-more-polite treble gives you the confidence that you’re going to want to stick around for many, many more hours while still experiencing chill-inducing levels of detail as the Utopia blazes through lightning-quick transients and abrupt changes in tempo.
If new music from The Mars Volta wasn’t making me nostalgic enough, I soon after received a frantic text from my best mate and former bandmate to announce that a new track from none other than The Smashing Pumpkins had just dropped: Beguiled, the first single from their upcoming album Atum. Switching over to the Matrix Audio Element X2 Music Streamer for this track, I noticed that the Class-A all-in-one device’s slightly higher output impedance (12 ohms) and warmer presentation lent the Utopia a denser quality, with a low-end muscularity that I was unaccustomed to hearing from the OG Utopia - irrespective of the source device used. The distorted guitars chugged with precise brutality, and Billy Corgan’s acerbic voice cut through dripping with all of its familiar, idiosyncratic character.
A tune that I might have been otherwise hesitant to listen to on the original Utopia, like Opeth’s Reverie/Harlequin Forest is otherwise magnificently enjoyable and engaging on the 2022 model. The speed and technical abilities of those 40mm beryllium drivers are on full display here, showing off the fast and brutal kick drums and tactile, dynamic percussion with absolute finesse. The electric guitar parts at the start of the track come across with vivid alacrity, and when things switch down-tempo mid-song, the acoustic guitars feel “live” for lack of a better word, such is the sense of realism that you get while listening to the Utopia - you genuinely feel like a part of the mix.
The Utopia’s imaging chops and ability to “place” you within a track are second-to-none. While it’s not an exaggeratedly “wide”-soundstage, the Utopia can firmly plant you within an array of instrumentalists and vocalists and structure a 3D image around you in a way that you can almost reach out and touch. In Pearl Jam’s Of The Girl, the Utopia’s imaging almost becomes eerie at times - it’s like being in a live recording studio, and Mike McCready is playing his guitar down the hall outside the door on the right-hand side. The Utopia makes you feel both in the front row, and in the middle of a performance hall all at once in the vast, echo-y Strong by London Grammar. While it’s not as diffuse as the Sennheiser HD800s, the Utopia just sounds “open” like nothing else you’ve heard - its sense of air and ability to place you neatly within that space is unparalleled.
While the Utopia was somewhat of a fickle “Unicorn” of sorts that was occasionally hard to tame, Focal has managed to keep all the performance characteristics of the original intact while making it an easier beast to live with. The new 2022 Utopia, on the other hand, is more of a thoroughbred racehorse - still capable of dancing with the best, but will ultimately appeal to more riders.
The 2022 Utopia is everything a flagship headphone ought to be: luxurious, comfortable, beautiful to behold, and stunning to listen to - no matter the genre, you’re in for an exhilarating performance that will make you rediscover the nuances in any track you throw its way. And for making a headphone that’s in every way more appealing to listen to, the new 2022 Utopia is simply an improvement in every way. Timbre-wise, technicality-wise, tuning-wise, and build-wise, it’s the new benchmark that I’ll judge all others by.