Headphones, Impressions

IMPRESSIONS: The View from the Summit – My Time with Utopia

IMPRESSIONS: The View from the Summit – My Time with Utopia

It all comes together

Normally when I audition a headphone, lack of impact is one of the first things I notice, at which point I generally lose interest. But the Utopia was doing too many things too well for me not to pay attention – including the way it described rather than viscerally delivered the bass in the mix. Owl City’s electronically layered ‘Saltwater Room’ literally invited me to walk in and explore the different points of sound emanating all around the space Utopia created. Every layer was separated like an onionskin at the hands of a master chef, and expertly arranged so that the parts were never removed from the whole. On brighter headphones that lack a sense of nuance or control, the sweetness of Breanne Duren’s supporting vocals – which really steal the show from lead singer Adam Young – can be lost in the mix. Instead, the Utopia let me meander through the treble-laden track as if it were lush and rolling midlands, with Adam and Breanne walking with me and around me. It was quite magical really, and prompted me to write in my notes: “best treble I’ve heard in a headphone.”

Cohesiveness is probably the defining character of this headphone. Whether your leaning is more synthesised like Owl City and Daft Punk, or soft rock like Def Leppard, the Utopia presents you with a sound that is both richly detailed and highly musical, without favouring any parts at the expense of others. It’s impossibly smooth, lush and clinical all at once; and unwaveringly musical to my ears. Unlike other high-end headphones that specialise in doing some things well – the space and resolution of the HD800, the speed and transparency of the Stax, the warmth and weight of the LCD-3, the natural realism of the Auteur – the Utopia takes all these elements and melds them together into its own unique sound.

Of course it’s not without its faults, small as they may seem at these dizzying heights. Daft Punk’s ‘Contact’ (listen here) from their masterpiece album ‘Random Access Memories’ is a typical slow-burning, quickly building piece of artful electronica that goes from spartan emptiness to crazy mayhem in a few short minutes. There’s a frantic energy conveyed by the sudden advance and attack of the ‘aliens’ that Utopia’s measured approach somehow fails to grasp. With all the elements neatly intertwined, it almost holds itself back from giving any of the crazy effects prominence over another, but that’s exactly what you want to hear, and many less poised headphones will give you just that.

Utopia is also too fast, in my opinion, at conveying decay, which can make it sound a little dry at times. The droning decay of the deep drums that softly underlie Katie Melua’s ‘Red Balloons’ is a case in point, as are the big, bold booms in Dadawa’s ’Sister Drum’. In both cases Utopia lets you know what you’re hearing – heck it’s so detailed you can probably read the label on the backing material of the drums used in the track – but the size is all wrong. Perhaps it is Utopia’s expensive and exotic Beryllium drivers at play; the Elear and its equally sized drivers doesn’t seem to have too much trouble with the drums in those tracks. It could just be that a buttery smooth rather than hard edged articulation is exactly the sound Focal was seeking, in which case they’ve nailed it.

Back on terra firma

Later that day, after my climb down from the summit, I was reflecting on the experience with my brother, who’d extensively listened to the Utopia in days gone by. In his own words, “the Utopia’s refinement has an incredible way of dissecting the music yet presenting it in an incredibly musical way, so it is articulate all the while being delicate and pleasing, and not sanitised like so many ‘audiophile’ headphones.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself, so I didn’t. What I will say is that, combined with the right system, the Utopia earns its praise and position among the very best of the best. While I consider my system to be of a very high standard, there’s no question a headphone like Utopia will benefit more – and give you more – from a system more commensurate with its price tag. That’s not to say the system I’m using was necessarily a limiting factor, but that there are more gears to be shifted if you have the means to do so. Add to that the mysterious effect that synergy may yield with different components, which Utopia is undoubtedly transparent enough to respond to.

Closing thoughts

Which brings me to the reason I decided, in the end, to take leave of the summit, regardless of how stunning I found the view. Truth be told, the difference between high-end and summit-fi is not nearly as large as you’d imagine based purely on how much it will cost you to walk those extra few steps to the top. If, like me, you’re willing to spread your listening between two or more headphones, each of which does something different or better than the other and is therefore more suited to different types of music, then putting all your eggs in one very expensive basket like Utopia is not necessarily the best way to spend your money.

Then again, if money is no object, and the price of Utopia doesn’t make your palms sweat and eyes twitch, then few headphones I’m aware of can elevate your music to extreme levels of fidelity like Utopia can. It may not get you up and dancing, but it will make you cry – and not because you had to sell your car to buy it.

1 comment

  1. Nicely written, laid out thoughts and examples, oh and photography!
    I heard the Utopia at a dealer in Costa Mesa Newport Beach area. Along with Elear, and Clear. Utopia was next level, though the others were certainly likable and satisfying in their own light. Hearing them playing via the Dave at CanJam, I heard some grain that bugged me… might have been the headphone amp in the dave? … gravitated to the Auteur Blackwoods for an all around solution.
    The Utopia lit the spark that triggered the search 🙂

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