The Mighty Utopia: Focal Utopia Revisted

Discussion in 'Headphones' started by purr1n, Aug 13, 2020.

  1. dematted

    dematted Friend

    Friend Banned
    Joined:
    Dec 7, 2019
    Likes Received:
    2,150
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Brooklyn, New York
    21352BA7-F350-4132-943E-A4D3B3360EAE.jpeg

    Intro

    Thanks to the generosity of @Erroneous, who offered me a free loaner, I've received the opportunity to listen to a Focal Utopia for a couple days. I had at least two reasons for reaching out about this loaner. Firstly, as the owner of the ECP DSHA-3F, I really wanted to check out how the Utopia sounded on it. After all, the amp was designed to drive this headphone. The more direct impetus for reaching out about the Utopia, though, was the fact that I had acquired a new headphone, a prototype of ETA's "Baram", the headphone they've been working toward releasing for some time. I've written a bit about my impressions of the Baram vs. Utopia at Canjam over in the ETA Mini thread, but I'm well aware that meet conditions color our perceptions. Some more information about the Baram can be found on this page - it's a 32 ohm headphone with a very open design and a N52 graphene driver.

    This review is going to follow my usual format: I'm going to examine the bass, mids, and treble independently, then jump into some discussion of the general presentation of the two headphones, before concluding with a spider chart. Below are a series of notes and caveats having to do with the chain, my biases, and the music I listen to.

    1. I have some bias toward ETA, insofar as I've actually met Ev and am involved in the ETA discord. I try not to let that bias seep into my impressions, but this is obviously difficult to do fully.

    2. I'm running a Bifrost 2 --> ECP 3F with Nickel Transformers. The Amorphous were too hot with Utopia for my tastes.

    3. My ETA Baram is a prototype, and not a finished headphone. It's likely the actual production baram will be released with new and improved drivers. As a result, I encourage readers to treat this comparison as less the analysis of a single headphone (The Baram Proto) and more as a comparison between what ETA can do at their best and Focal.

    4. I listen primarily to acoustic, Indie-rock, classical, classic rock and singer-songwriter. These genres might not show off the actual strengths of the Utopia.

    Bass

    This is interesting, because it's really not clear which headphone has "better" bass. The Baram's has significantly more weight and sense of substance and texture. In tracks with a good deal of sub-bass, there just seems to be more of it, but at the same time it doesn't perceptibly bleed into any parts of the frequency range. The Utopia's bass is lighter on its feet and quicker. It also seems to have a better sense of nuance and pitch differentiation at the micro-level; that being said, I actually find that the Baram's bass has more actual texture, detail, and plankton. Perhaps this is simply an artifact of the fact that there's more of it than there is on the Utopia, but on various tracks (I'm thinking particularly of the bass-heavy tracks of Paul Simon's "Graceland" Album) one can better hear the distinctive textures of different bass instruments.

    The end result of all of this is that it sounds like bass just has a bit better sense of presence and tactility on the Baram. I think this is also related to the way that transients in the bass are presented. While the Utopia bass slaps, it also backs off quite quickly and lacks a sense of sustain. This makes its attacks somewhat too light, even if they are very sharp at the edges. Overall, I think the winner here is the Baram, though if one is listening to very quick EDM tracks, the sheer sense of speed and micro-dynamic nuance that the Utopia possesses might edge it out. Very close.

    Midrange
    As many of you who have read my reviews know, this is what's most important to me. The mids of both of these headphones actually share a similar tonal contour: they both have more present lower-mids, with a bit of a bump in the mid-mids followed by a recession in the upper-mids. Normally, this thing tends to bother me, though with both of these headphones it doesn't (maybe because of the sheer sense of detail both have) grate on my nerves too much. In fact, on many tracks this mild recession in the upper-mids gives a sense of richness and smoothness to vocals that is quite pleasing, and also expands the sense of staging and separation, leading to a presentation that is a tad more ethereal but also involving in quite a different way than headphones with present upper-mids and treble recessions (think HD650).

    This is where the similarities end. Despite generally similar tonal contours, the actual presentation of the mid-range between these two headphones is quite different. The first thing one notices is that whereas mid-range instruments jump out at you in large, dimensional images on the Baram, they are shrunken on the Utopia into the equivalent of finely located geometrical points. These points are, as one might expect, sharper and more defined, with a far greater sense of separation and spatial localization, but because of the kind of compression required to shrink them, they often strike one as not entirely realistic. The images themselves don't seem to have depth or width to them (after all, they are mere points on a cartesian plane, as I'm describing them) and consequently the overall presentation strikes one as almost too clean, as if one is listening to a series of isolated instruments rather than a singular composition.

    The Baram, if anything, has the opposite tendency. The images are large and saturated, with a sense of texture and timbral distinctiveness that I've never heard from any other headphone. In this sense, they remind me of what many say about NOS dacs. Yet because each of the instruments occupies so much space, it's sometimes difficult to piece everything out in a more complex track. This contributes to a sense of mild haziness, which is normally not bothersome but which does sound just a tad less than "hi-fi" when compared to the Utopia.

    Let's talk about one of the things that's most important to me: the actual degree to which the mid-range presentation is engaging. Here, the Utopia possesses a superior sense of rhythm, drive, and speed owing to its more present and jumpy microdynamics and more defined leading edges. The Baram strikes back, though, with a better sense of timbral realism. Whereas the beryllium tinge of the Utopia's driver has a tendency to homogenize timbres and make different instruments and vocals sound as if they are yolk and white of the same shell, the Baram does precisely the opposite, drawing out the individual characteristics of each instrument with greater vividness. In other words, in terms of sheer mid-range transparency and blackground, the Utopia may sound clearer and better-defined, but it actually sounds (in some senses of the word - more on this later) -less- resolving and true to the individual timbres and textures of different mid-range instruments.

    Treble

    The treble is probably the most disappointing part of both of these headphones for me. Ideally, I want treble with a sense of air that is simultaneously well-textured and non-fatiguing. I don't find that either of these headphones accomplished this particularly well. While the Baram has a nice sense of air at the very top, it also sounds a bit over-smoothened in the treble, as if the edges of treble attacks are rounded off. Utopia, as many of you may have guessed, has the opposite problem: it actually sounds artificially airy to me, as if the very top octave is pushed up. I often find that headphones that do this have a sort of "sheen" throughout not just the treble, but the entire frequency range. The Utopia has more than a hint of this, and while it does add something of a sharpening effect to music as a whole that brings out some pleasing detail and clarity, it tends to also crush the sense of tactility and weight of mid-range instruments, leading to a presentation that is just a bit too ethereal rather than substantive.

    That being said, if I had to choose here, I would probably prefer the Utopia's treble. It just has more detail, more sense of definition, and better texture. Whereas the Baram's mid-range tends to sound a bit more true to life than the Utopia's, here I think the Utopia's treble hits back with a bit more timbral realism. Cymbals sound metallic, violins lovely air and bite, and whistles sound appropriately extended. All of this takes a bit of a back-seat on the Baram, despite the fact that it measures as having quite a great deal of treble extension.

    General Presentation
    I think for most people, switching from the Baram to the Utopia will yield an expression like "Aha! - this is what I was -really- looking for!". The sheer sense of clarity and speed makes it sound notably more "hi-fi" than the Baram, and it's hard to get past the feeling upon first listen that the Baram's driver just isn't quite as capable. This was, in fact, my first impression. However, as I began to listen more, I became increasingly disquieted (perhaps happily so, for I do not, after all, own the Utopia, and have no plans to fork over the cash to do so). The more I listened to the Utopia, the more things I noticed that it was missing. While the speed and transparency were addicting at first, there was a sense of hardness with instruments that just didn't sit quite right with me. At the same time, transient presentation lacked just a bit of what I wanted: while transients were sharp and extremely well-defined throughout the frequency response, they seemed to lack in sustain and follow-through. This wasn't only in the bass, but also in the mid-range and the lower-treble - it was as if the headphone was quite eager to hit you with attacks, but then didn't quite have the power to sustain them. The Baram's transients, by contrast, tend to be more rounded at the very start, but also "follow-through" a bit more, giving them a firmer (rather than sharper) character. I think I prefer this.

    All of this leads to two very different presentations. While the Utopia is the more quick, nimble headphone, jumping around with a sense of bounciness to its dynamics, the Baram is the more substantial, weighty one, and not just in the sense that its FR is tilted downwards (the FR of the two headphones are actually remarkably similar). In fact, compared to the Utopia the Baram has a sense of pervasive mellowness about it, not unlike (triangulating here) what I've heard people say about the Wavedream, with its somewhat rounded character. Yet due to the blown-up sizes of instrument images, the sense of weightiness and firmness to transients, and the vividness with which Baram portrays distinctive instrument timbres, music simply sounds more expressive, colorful, and alive on the Baram, despite being comparatively "sedate" with its dynamics and speed. In short, I will not be buying a Utopia, and have no desire to.

    Spider Summary
    Screen Shot 2022-05-01 at 4.48.41 PM.png
     
    • Like Like x 14
    • Epic Epic x 7
    • List
    Last edited: May 1, 2022
  2. lcmusiclover

    lcmusiclover Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Nov 7, 2017
    Likes Received:
    728
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Oregon Coast
    Is this universally agreed (no sonic changes OG vs 2020)?

    I’ve seen exactly one review which seems to disagree:

    https://www.theaudiophileworld.net/2021/08/focal-utopia-2020-short-take-review.html

    — calls out significant differences.

    Also a few impressions of differences following driver replacements.
     
  3. dubharmonic

    dubharmonic Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2017
    Likes Received:
    2,438
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Evanston, IL
    It is a rich and enjoyable listening experience so long as proper amplification is used such as the EAR HP4 or the Drop+THX AAA-789 Linear Headphone amplifier (used in this review).

    They lost me there.

    It seems to be extremely rare for any headphone to remain consistent after years and years of production. Sennheiser and Audeze for example.
     
    • Like Like x 4
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 2
    • List
  4. Phantaminum

    Phantaminum Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2018
    Likes Received:
    1,644
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Dallas, TX
    I was thinking more in line with pad differences. Akin wen comparing old Sennheisers HD650s vs new ones. You have a difference in attack, treble, bass, etc..

    You could be right as well with manufacturing remaining consistent. Also, I would never ever pair the Utopia with the THX 789. The incisiveness would make my ears bleed.
     
  5. Vtory

    Vtory Audiophile™

    Friend MZR
    Joined:
    Sep 12, 2016
    Likes Received:
    9,570
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    East Coast
    Isn't the blogger rambling about "pre-2020" utopia solely based on the memory? It doesn't quite seem old vs new Utopia. Assuming no recall bias, I bet that's rather usual audiophile case: human changes over time in terms of flavor, preference, etc.

    I can show a similar case but in the opposite direction. I hella loved Utopia circa 2018 while I didn't like as much when I revisited through 'newer' ones. Did Focal begin to shit-ify their totl? Probably not I guess..
     
  6. nishan99

    nishan99 Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Dec 1, 2019
    Likes Received:
    1,328
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Layla
    I bet it's the chain that's changing, the Elex was very sensitive to any change in the upstream gear, I bet the Utopia is even more sensitive.
     
  7. Dandrac42

    Dandrac42 Acquaintance

    Contributor
    Joined:
    Jul 19, 2020
    Likes Received:
    140
    Trophy Points:
    28
    Location:
    Rohnert Park, CA USA
    I just purchased a Schiit Folkvangr for my Utopias , I hope it is a good pairing since I have seen no mention of this combo. Keeping my fingers crossed. Wish me luck.
     
  8. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

    Friend
    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2016
    Likes Received:
    4,418
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    Please send both to me after so I can verify your findings. ;)
     
  9. Clemmaster

    Clemmaster Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 28, 2015
    Likes Received:
    2,797
    Trophy Points:
    113
  10. Walderstorn

    Walderstorn Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Mar 20, 2016
    Likes Received:
    1,492
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Europe
    Definitely not as striking as the original, looking kinda "the rest of the line", and his photo skills (that are as weak as mine) and the fact that he must have a plastic protection on the lens (suspect because of that foggy look) doesn't really help but the fact that they potentially solved the longevity issues is an excellent improvement.
     
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 2
    • Like Like x 1
    • List
  11. JeremiahS

    JeremiahS Facebook Friend

    Contributor
    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2015
    Likes Received:
    157
    Trophy Points:
    43
    Location:
    Jakarta, Singapore
  12. nishan99

    nishan99 Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Dec 1, 2019
    Likes Received:
    1,328
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Layla
    Seems like they're following the Clear MG tuning but not as much. Really unexpected from Focal.

    OG Utopia vs 2022 Utopia
    [​IMG]
     
  13. Ksaurav402

    Ksaurav402 Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    May 7, 2019
    Likes Received:
    1,423
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    NY
    I wonder if we would loose some of the detail and texture we get from vocals in new iteration
     
  14. Clemmaster

    Clemmaster Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 28, 2015
    Likes Received:
    2,797
    Trophy Points:
    113
    When I first saw pictures of it a few weeks back, I was hoping the forged carbon fiber headband was just a prototype. I guess not...
    I much prefer the pattern on the original Utopia (in pictures, at least).
     
    • Like Like x 1
    • Agreed, ditto, +1 Agreed, ditto, +1 x 1
    • List
  15. ColtMrFire

    ColtMrFire Writes better fan fics than you

    Friend
    Joined:
    Jun 16, 2016
    Likes Received:
    4,418
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    Yeap, photos are kind of embarrassing for a professional site review.
     
  16. Pancakes

    Pancakes Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    Aug 13, 2020
    Likes Received:
    1,049
    Trophy Points:
    93
    Location:
    Atl
    Curious how that 6K peak (relative to the frequencies on either side) will manifest while listening.
     
  17. ilikebananafudge_

    ilikebananafudge_ Rando

    Joined:
    Sep 21, 2021
    Likes Received:
    65
    Trophy Points:
    13
    Location:
    Massachusetts
  18. gixxerwimp

    gixxerwimp Professional tricycle rider

    Friend
    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2015
    Likes Received:
    5,192
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    small island claimed by China
    Source? Where did he post that?
     
  19. ilikebananafudge_

    ilikebananafudge_ Rando

    Joined:
    Sep 21, 2021
    Likes Received:
    65
    Trophy Points:
    13
    Location:
    Massachusetts
  20. crenca

    crenca Friend

    Friend
    Joined:
    May 26, 2017
    Likes Received:
    3,400
    Trophy Points:
    113
    Location:
    Southern New Mexico
    Looking at the graphs and thinking about the descriptions in the reviews, it strikes me that the tonality difference between the two is pads more (or as much) than any changes to the driver itself...
     

Share This Page