Brent Butterworth reviewed Focal’s updated Utopia headphones in January 2023. He began by praising the original Utopia headphones, which were released in 2016, stating that they were “probably as close as anyone’s come to perfection in headphones.” In fact, his June 2020 review earned Reviewers’ Choice and Recommended Reference Component awards for the original Utopia headphones. Since the new version ($4999, all prices in USD) has the same name, Brent explained that he would refer to the new model as the “Utopia 2022.” We have done the same here, and in the measurements report.
Since this is an evolutionary design that didn’t even get a name change, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that certain core features remain the same. This includes the use of “an ultra-light, ultra-stiff, 40mm beryllium diaphragm” for the driver in each earcup. The beryllium diaphragm is a hallmark of Focal’s most expensive speakers, but the Stellia headphones ($2990)—one step below the Utopias—are the only other of the French manufacturer’s headphones to use the material. Brent wrote: “The diaphragm has an ‘M’ shape, which makes it flatter.” He added: “Focal claims this design is stiffer than the usual ‘V’ shape.”
Brent noted that the Utopia 2022 headphones “get the same luxe accommodations as the originals did: a carrying case made from formed plastic covered in gray tweed fabric.” He also mentioned that “two cables are included: a 10′ (3m) cable with a balanced four-pin XLR connector on the source end and snap-in LEMO connectors on the headphone ends, and a 4′ (1.2m) cable with a 1/8″ (3.5mm) plug on the source end and a 1/8″-to-1/4″ (3.5mm-to-6.35mm) adapter.”
While the overall design and packaging remain very similar, Brent emphasized that these headphones have been “upgraded in numerous subtle ways.” These improvements include a switch “from an aluminum voice coil to one made from a combination of aluminum and copper to make it more reliable,” as well as “a new grille design on the outside . . . designed to reduce acoustical impedance and make the sound more open.” And the grilles over the drivers themselves “have been reshaped to more closely follow the shape of each driver, minimizing internal reflections and shifting them to higher, inaudible frequencies.” And finally, according to Focal: “The yokes that hold each earpiece are said to be stronger because they’re made from forged carbon instead of carbon fiber.”
Brent described the Utopia 2022 headphones as being “quite comfortable,” though he did say they are “a bit on the heavy side (although not troublesomely so).” He liked that “the foam is fairly soft and the clamping force is light,” but not so light as to allow the headphones to fall off his head. Brent mentioned that “the ear openings are large enough even for plus-size pinnae” like his—which may be of interest to similarly endowed users.
In his January writeup, Brent announced that it would be his “last review for SoundStage! Solo,” and perhaps his “last single-product review ever.” (Brent had already accepted a job at Wirecutter at that time, which is where he is today.) As a result, Brent thought it fitting to use his “favorite reference tunes”—ones that he began using from his “1995–1999 gig as editor of Home Theater magazine to the present day”—to review the Utopia 2022s.
The first song he played was Holly Cole’s version of Tom Waits’s “Train Song,” from her 1995 album Temptation (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Blue Note / Qobuz). Brent wrote: “With the Utopia 2022s, not only was the bass line rendered with what I—having heard this on a zillion systems—consider essential perfection, but Cole’s voice sounded as natural, uncolored, and present as I’ve ever heard it. The percussion seemed to be reproduced with a just-right balance of mids and highs, although I do have to say I’ve heard headphones that produce a greater sense of space on this tune—mostly planar-magnetic models with accentuated treble.”
Next was James Taylor’s “Shower the People,” which Brent had digitally copied from the two-channel Live at the Beacon Theatre DVD soundtrack (16/44.1 WAV, Sony). He proclaimed the reproduction of this song was “probably as perfectly balanced” as he’s ever heard it, and that “nothing was accentuated.” The only downside was that “the Utopia 2022s didn’t produce as big a sense of space” as he’s heard from some other headphones.
According to Brent, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” from the Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy album of the same name (16/44.1 FLAC, ECM Records / Qobuz), is “maybe the best soundstaging test” he’s heard. Brent explained that one of the things he listens for on this track is “the splash cymbal that introduces the melody,” which is “way up in the high frequencies, which makes it useful for tweeter testing.” Things didn’t sound as Brent expected, however: “Weirdly, the splash cymbal was really not there with the Utopia 2022s. But everything else sounded kinda—to bring back that word again—perfect.” He then described that what “struck” him was “the natural tonality of all the horns,” which sounded “gorgeous, full, detailed, and powerful.”
Brent compared the Utopia 2022s to the Sendy Peacock, Grado RS2x, and Audeze LCD-X headphones, using Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” from her self-titled 1988 debut (16/44.1 FLAC, Elektra Records / Qobuz), as a reference. He found that the sound of the Focal headphones was “easily . . . the most neutral of the bunch, with a seemingly perfect tonal balance.” He added that the Sendy Peacock headphones “sounded livelier in ways, with slightly more bass and treble, and somewhat less present midrange,” and the Audeze LCD-X headphones “sounded somewhat like the Utopia 2022s, but tilted more toward the bass.” The Grado RS2x headphones were “the trebliest sound of this bunch,” which brought out the hi-hat and the strings of the acoustic guitar “more than any of the other headphones,” but also made Chapman’s voice sound “edgier.”
Brent chose a great pair of headphones for his swan-song review, even if he found the Utopia 2022s “a little soft on top” and sounding not quite “as spectacularly spacious” as some other competitive designs. These were obviously insignificant issues for Brent, because he declared that the Utopia 2022s are “among the world’s best” headphones: “From 12kHz on down (likely the range of hearing of most of the people who could afford these!), you cannot do better.” The praise in his review left us with no doubt that, like the original Utopias, this latest version of Focal’s flagship headphones fully deserved the Reviewers’ Choice award presented when the review was published—and these superb headphones also merit our Recommended Reference Component award this month.
Manufacturer contact information:
BP 374, 108 rue de l’Avenir
42353 La Talaudière Cedex
Phone: (+33) 477-43-57-00
Focal Naim America
313 rue Marion
Repentigny, Quebec J5Z 4W8
Phone: (800) 663-9352