I’ve been anticipating this moment all week, and so diligently prepared a list of test tracks I was hoping to hear through Utopia, running the gamut of my musical preferences from girl with guitar to male crooners, modern pop, classic rock and electronica.
First up was Heidi Talbot’s intimately beautiful ‘If You Stay’ (watch here) from her Love+Light album, a track I’ve listened to countless times with almost every headphone I’ve owned and auditioned. Heidi’s innocently sensual voice and breathless delivery lend the song an ethereal quality that can sound edgy with the wrong headphone and compressed when the source is too digital. There was never any risk of that happening with Audio-gd’s exemplary R-28 all-in-one ladder dac and headphone amplifier, and even though the Utopia was using the amp’s single-ended output (I unfortunately did not have balanced Utopia cables to experiment with), the analog-like qualities of the source were immediately apparent.
‘If You Stay’ starts off with a series of lower register guitar plucks that should, ideally, reverberate and resonate around your head, and give the simple intro a sense of palpable weight and warmth. That’s exactly how Utopia delivered it, with every nuance of the guitar clearly and crisply articulated. Heidi’s opening verse was perfectly separated from the instruments that continue to play around her, and I could immediately get a sense of both depth and intimacy, as if she were sitting in the same room, singing her song to me.
Having said that, the Elex is no slouch, and so having ‘calibrated my brain’ by first playing the track through the Elex, I was left a little underwhelmed when the Utopia hardly deviated from what I’d just heard, minutes before. In a blind test I would be hard pressed to tell which headphone was which, other than the obviously cooler Utopia pads around my ears.
Similarities aside, the reason I keep going back to this expertly-mastered track is because good gear will almost always render it correctly, and any deviation is a solid strike against. So far, so good, but the first view from the summit was one I’d already seen before. Also, you may have noticed I used Elex to describe the Elear above, because having switched to Elex pads, that’s exactly what the Elear becomes. Since the Elex has a very similar FR graph to Utopia – and is often described as a ‘baby Utopia’ – I wanted to compare apples with apples, rather than use the more strident, dynamic and punchy Elear.
Change of pace
Strident, dynamic and punchy was exactly what I was looking for from the second test track, AC/DC’s seminal ‘Thunderstuck’ (watch here). Again a gorgeously mastered track, with good gear you should be able to get a real sense of stage width and space as the iconic guitar riff slowly builds up and around you, followed by the ‘kick’ of the kick drums – even before Brian Johnson’s unique delivery is heard over the backing vocals. Being treble sensitive, I use this track to test for glare in the higher notes of the screeching guitars, and as a bass aficionado, I want to feel the drums in the mix, not just hear them. This isn’t always an easy trick to pull off with headphones, but the really good ones will find just the right balance, even at higher volumes, without causing fatigue.
The three most obvious qualities immediately apparent in Utopia’s presentation of the track was its remarkably clean highs, superb instrument separation and ink black background. The sound appeared ‘out of nowhere’ and disappeared from the stage with equally stealth-like speed. I’d read all about the Utopia’s fabled ‘speed’, but didn’t really understand what that meant until I heard this track. You could almost slice the details with a scalpel, but at such speed that it would be humanly impossible to do so. The fastest headphones I’d heard prior to this was a higher-end Stax electrostatic, and this was every bit as fast if not faster.
Speed isn’t the only trait the Utopia seems to share with electrostatics. Not known for moving much air, ‘stats specialise in the delivery of tight, clean and detailed bass that often lacks the weight of real instruments or the rumble of electronic drums. This was a disappointment when hearing my first Stax, and likewise when hearing Thunderstruck through the Utopia. While not specifically a bass-driven track, I’ve heard the kick drums in the intro and the cacophony of drums in the body of the track conveyed with a real visceral impact on the likes of ZMF’s Atticus and the LCD-3, and even the Elear has a certain dynamic punch that makes Thunderstruck’s kicks stand out in the mix. The Utopia, while perfectly articulate, just didn’t do that for me. It was almost a sanitised rendition of bass, like one might expected from the likes of a Sennheiser HD600 or HD650, albeit a touch fuller than Sennheiser’s midrange models, and certainly more detailed.
But where you sometimes want to let your hair down and rock out to a track like Thunderstruck – or similarly styled tracks like Joe ‘Satch’ Satriani’s ‘Always With Me, Always With You’ (watch here) off his ’Surfing With The Alien’ album – you’re more likely to sit and clap to the beat while tethered to the ‘oh so polite’ Utopia. And that’s ok; the Utopia is not, as far as I can tell, a balls-to-the-wall headphone, and that’s by design. There’s just too much detail, nuance, and subtlety in its approach to really bring on the grunge. For many audiophiles that’s a plus, and my penchant for tastefully elevated bass isn’t something these folks will lose much sleep over.