I tested these $4,000 headphones and they sound as good as that crazy price suggests
Jeff DunnAug 14, 2016, 20:30 IST
Business Insider/Jeff Dunn
I don't want to give the Focal Utopia back.
I don't get this romantic very often. But the Utopia - a new pair of ultra high-end headphones from French manufacturer Focal - isn't a good gadget so much as it's luxury.
It's made from rare materials, crafted with obvious care, and, put simply, better sounding than any headphone I've ever tested. If any device deserves to have the word "premium" attached to it, the Utopia is it.
It's also $4,000. That's a lot! (It also explains my lede.) Yet, after testing the Utopia for the past couple of weeks, that price doesn't feel completely absurd. Here's what I mean.
The Utopia looks good. It has a lot going on, what with its dimpled leather earpads, aluminum grills, and carbon fiber yoke, but it doesn’t come off as showy. The jet-black style helps it find a balance between “thing that costs $4,000” and “thing I’m not embarrassed to wear around people.”
It’s also comfortable. You can’t expect anything less for the money, but the Utopia’s headband and earpads are supremely soft and cushioned. Your ears get plenty of breathing room, too. While the whole thing is fairly heavy (490 grams), that weight is well-balanced once it’s on your head.
Sound is what matters, though, and it’s there where the Utopia is nearly untouchable. Even after weeks of listening, I can’t muster any major complaints about what Focal has created.
What makes the Utopia special is the way it manages to produce extreme clarity while maintaining a strong sense of punchiness and energy. It’s fun and analytical at the same time. It doesn’t sell out one part of the highs, mids, or lows to emphasize another — it’s all there, all balanced, all intensely detailed.
The best way I can describe this is that it’s like strapping your ears into their own little personal theater. There’s an immense sense of space to tracks — you can trace each bass line or vocal track as they move, and feel all the little peaks and dips they take along the way. Even with more complex songs, it keeps everything in focus without muddying up.
All that said, this is still an audiophile’s headphone. As such, you have to play by its rules. For one, it uses an open-backed design. That helps it sound so spacious, but also leaks that sound all over the room. If you play something with any volume, anyone around you will hear it as well.
To even use it, you need a dedicated amplifier, which will supply enough power for the Utopia to pick up the sound. I used this amp + digital-to-analog converter (DAC) combo called the Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse, which itself is $1,800, and is generally considered one of the best on the market.
The biggest culture shock, though, will probably come from the Utopia’s cable. It uses a 6.3mm connector, not the 3.5mm you’re probably used to, and it’s a whopping 13 feet long. It adds a good chunk of weight, too.
You can still use all this with your phone or laptop, but that means putting up with multiple dongles, like so.
Even then, a headphone only sounds as good as the files it’s sourcing. If you listen to poorly recorded music through low-quality streaming services, the Utopia won’t be as resolving as it could. It still sounds great by default, but it can’t reveal details that don’t exist in the first place.
None of these are criticisms, though — they’re just the realities of high-end audio. You need to adapt. When I did with the Utopia, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the pure experience of taking in music. It got me closer to the stuff I like, and made me more open to enjoying the stuff I might not.