Utopia 2020 Headphone Review
Top-of-the-line open-back headphones from the master smiths of Beryllium drivers.
Regular Price $4,400.00 $4,400.00
THE HIGH NOTES
- Pure-Beryllium Speaker Driver
- Great Top-end Sizzle
- Resolute Sound Signature
Company & Product Overview
Focal, the French high-end audio brand, earned its reputation in high-performance audio, first, when it began manufacturing loudspeakers in 1979. Choosing to design and manufacture everything in-house at its Saint-Étienne-based facility, Focal has decidedly focused on crafting world-class luxury loudspeakers for the best sounding mastering studios and listening rooms in the world.
To say Focal understands how to craft the best sounding dynamic drivers out of the most incredible materials is an understatement. Given its had over 40 years to perfect the designs behind its top-tier luxury loudspeakers, the French company knows precisely what it’s doing when it comes to the technology in its dynamic transducers.
In 2016, Focal channeled all of its expertise into the production of an open-back headphone for the first time and headphone enthusiasts took note and awaited the reviews. Audiences around the world wanted to know if Focal could really package decades of dynamic driver expertise, and deliver its phenomenal soundstage in a more portable over-the-ear headphone format. Could Focal pull it off, and deliver the wide-open soundstage with the detail and clarity the brand is so famous for in its loudspeakers?
In today’s review, we put Focal’s flagship over-the-ear headphone, Utopia 2020, to the test. Here, we’ll help you decide if Focal’s most premium headphone is worth the flagship price-tag. By the end of this review, you’ll know if Utopia 2020 is the right fit for you.
Packaging, Design & Build Quality
The new Utopia 2020 kit bundles high-end accessories with Focal's flagship audiophile-grade headphone. Focal selected a black embossed gift box to house its flagship open-back headphone. Opening the exquisite packaging truly sets expectations that a luxury experience is about to take place.
Inside the decadent packaging, Utopia 2020 kit comes with a leather owners' manual wallet and a lightweight rigid carrying case that’s similar to other headphone cases by Focal. With Utopia 2020, the included case comes in a charcoal finish that matches Utopia 2020's sleek black and carbon fiber color-scheme.
Looking at Utopia, images of Batman’s sophisticated gadgets in gunmetal black come to mind. Overall, the color and design of the bundled carrying case pairs well with Utopia’s sophisticated aesthetic. We think the bundled case is a nice touch, and it can help protect Utopia’s more delicate lamb-skin materials from superficial or cosmetic damages.
However, we would have liked to have seen more heavy-duty protection offered here. Even though the Utopia might have Batman looks, don’t expect the bundled case to offer Batman protection beyond casual travel.
Additionally, two headphone cables are included: one braided balanced 10 ft. cable with 4pin XLR termination ideal for using at home with high-end amplifiers, and a braided unbalanced 4 ft. headphone cable with 1/8-inch (3.5mm) connection-type for connecting to smartphones, tablets, and other portable audio sources. Finally, a 1/4-inch (6.35mm) adapter is also included to conveniently plug-and-play with a variety of supported headphone amps.
Focusing on the headphones themselves, Focal really brought their A-game when they designed and manufactured the Utopia in their Burgundy, France facility. At first glance, the attention to detail is obvious. The materials are built with a sophisticated elegance that showcases Focal’s ingenious engineering. Holding it, we feel a genuine appreciation for exceptional design and craftsmanship. The Utopia is simply exquisite to look at and satisfyingly solid to hold in the hands. We think its physical design truly sets a standard for what a high-end luxury headphone can be.
Utopia 2020 weighs in at 1.08lbs (490g), so the build-quality feels sturdy when holding it, but light enough on the head to provide a comfortable feel when wearing it. The lambskin leather Focal designed for the 20mm memory foam ear cushions is soft and subtle to the touch. Wearing the Utopia on the head feels luxurious around the ears. The true lambskin ear cushions stay cool even during longer listening sessions. The ear cushions provide a secure snug fit, creating an excellent seal that feels great while locking in a soundstage that’s wide open at the same time.
Moreover, the relatively light weightiness of the Utopia is evenly distributed across the headband when wearing it. We attribute this level of comfort to the design of the carbon fiber yoke, and we can see why Focal opted for it here. As a material, carbon fiber has a strength to density ratio that keeps the material light, flexible, and durable. This helps alleviate the unnecessary weight on pressure points and provides a comfortable fit that’s flexible to the user’s needs even after making several adjustments to the yoke. We believe Utopia’s mechanical design and flexible materials will allow the headphone to fit almost anyone's head-shape and size.
The soft leather headband offers not only length adjustment, but also ear cup rotation mechanisms that allow users to better direct sound into the ear canals. For the shapes of some of our heads, we found it helpful to tilt the Utopia’s headband forward just a bit. After listening to a few songs with the Utopia, making these slight adjustments helped us tailor the comfort-level and then lean into it better. Interestingly, this also improved the sense of presentation of our experience (more on this later). All of the mechanical design decisions, ultimately, helped us sustain our enjoyment, allowing us to focus our attention on what’s important: the music.
For a first encounter, all of these visual aesthetics are revving up the anticipation for our ears. The stimulating display Focal exhibits overall from the attention to detail in Utopia 2020's new packaging to the physical look and design has been setting great expectations in our office for the famous open-back.
Features & Technology
Open-back headphones tend to sound more “outside” the head rather than “in-the-head,” and the Utopia delivers on that full-range loudspeaker sound promise, but we’ll discuss that more in the next section. First, the material Focal selected for its first bold step into the headphone market must be discussed.
Focal is the king of Beryllium (period). When it comes to designing dynamic transducers for its top-tier luxury loudspeakers, Focal has mastered the manufacturing process of the arduous metal. The process required 2 years of research and development for Focal to build a machine capable of transforming a flat sheet made of pure Beryllium into a dome-shape. But Focal one upped itself by designing a completely new driver profile for the Utopia: the ‘M’-shaped driver. The geometry of the new driver profile provides a larger emissive area for energy generated by the Utopia’s driver to discharge. What does this mean for you? A louder speaker with a higher break-up point compared to headphones with a regular dome-shape.
Beryllium is special because of its unique strength to density ratio. The material is incredibly difficult to work with, and yet Focal’s engineering team selects the stubborn metal because of the tonal characteristics it imparts to sound, and its ability to reproduce transients accurately.
For those who have ever had the pleasure of sitting in front of a pair of floor-standing counterparts by Focal, the tonal clarity and musical detail (especially in the bottom-end weight) is remarkably resolute, detailed, and musical. But, for anyone who might not have access to high-end luxury loudspeakers, here’s a chance to taste it. Now that Beryllium is accessible from the brand that mastered the tech to manufacture it, headphone users can now bring that 40 years of research and development with them on-the-go to the office or other private settings.
Because the backsides of the Utopia’s ear cups are “open,” standing back waves generated by the Utopia’s dynamic drivers will escape outside the ear cups. Of course, this is by design so that Focal’s engineers deliver the most wide-open soundstage in a headphone possible. In fact, Focal optimized Utopia’s open-back ear cups to allow total decompression of the energy that its pure Beryllium ‘M’-shaped dome creates. While this feature makes the music more audible to other people around you, the idea behind Focal’s approach to the Utopia’s design is aimed faithfully at delivering a similar sense of presentation that fans of the brand’s loudspeakers expect.
For dynamic drivers, Beryllium is a material renowned for its ability to enhance our appreciation of musical details like no other element on the periodic table. World-class audio engineers depend on Beryllium for their mastering studios because of the critical listening requirements that their work demands. On paper, Focal has bestowed an incredible list of performance features in the Utopia 2020 by delivering that same Beryllium mojo found in the highest performing loudspeakers and putting it inside of a headphone. But how well does the amazing technology behind that manufacturing process translate in the real world when it’s transferred to an open-back headphone?
Don’t expect great sound when connecting Utopia 2020 directly with a laptop or smart device. If you need to connect directly with a smart device, consider the Stellia, the Clear, or the Elegia instead. With an impedance of 80 Ohms, users will get the most out of the flagship Utopia by using a good DAC/headphone amp to drive the Utopia’s potential for accurately reproducing high res music in all its glorious detail. The included balanced 10 ft headphone cable with a 4-pin XLR connector will help users get there when connecting the Utopia to high-end amplifiers. After allowing the Utopia to burn-in, we connected our Utopia test unit to a Naim V1 DAC/headphone amp.
Connected to a proper headphone amp, the Utopia 2020's wide frequency response (5Hz - 50kHz) allows the headphone to reproduce audio signals as low as 5Hz with the bottom-end weight that the human body can actually feel. With a top-end extension of 50kHz, the Utopia possesses the frequency range to theoretically sing all the way into the stratosphere well beyond the range of human hearing.
For Utopia 2020, the relationship between higher impedance and lower sensitivity levels compound, creating more headroom for the music to breathe with increased clarity, detail, and phenomenal dynamics, overall. At 80 Ohms, the impedance sets the threshold high enough for transients to sing with the best dynamic range at louder volumes. This makes the music sound more “alive” similar to the soundstage from a pair of loudspeakers. On paper, Utopia 2020 has the right ingredients of specifications and features to provide an incredible sense of presentation that sings. But, at Regular Price $4,400.00 $4,400.00 , how good is it?
Using the Sonos app on an iPad to stream Tidal in high res to the Utopia made the answer more clear. On John Coltrane’s “Naima,” for example, the smokey sound of the room’s natural reverb reflecting off the walls of the room where the 1959 performance was recorded immediately drew us in. Like a time machine, the feeling of being transported to another time was a consistent report from our team. Like a fly on the wall, hearing music with the Utopia feels like standing in the room with the musicians. Right off the bat, the breathy tone of Coltrane’s unusually smooth saxophone work stood out presently with an airiness that sizzled gorgeously in the ears. Each note Coltrane articulates with his saxophone reed immersed us deeper into the sound of this room and the era of this intimate performance.
As if a time machine weren’t enough, the Utopia then served our abilities to hear as though we were handed a magnifying glass for the ears. Unanimously, we heard details through the Utopia that usually hide behind the veil with other headphones. For example, John Coltrane’s secrets to genius-playing were more exposed with less effort with the Utopia. This feature immediately stood out as a way to listen longer without fatiguing the ears. The sound of each note played on the sax sizzled in the ears like a graceful brush stroke painting a musical picture with a colorful tone. As listeners who generally prefer to listen more critically, it was so relaxing to close our eyes during the session, and just get lost in the sound of an artist expressing his feeling through the instrument he mastered. Wow. Just. Wow.
Next in the queue was the 1979 Motown classic: “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson. The Nile Rogers-styled rhythm guitar work resonates with a bell-like tonality we’ve never heard from this recording before. The tonality was brilliant and funky. The Utopia’s Beryllium driver has a sound signature that complements the “fun” and funky groove of the track with enhanced detail. We really enjoyed the fun sound of Beryllium resonance on these guitar plucks during our session.
The bottom-end weight of the kick drum “thumped” with striking musicality. We could actually feel the low-end energy generated by the kick drum thumping down deeply into our chests. It’s difficult to resist the raw urge to get up and dance. The detail of the kick and its separation against all the other instruments in the mix was wide open and resolute with the Utopia, and yet surprisingly musical. The snare landed satisfyingly in Utopia’s great-sounding top-end extension, which allowed our ears to hear the harmonic distortion of the tape “smearing” the tails of each snare that land in the center of the Utopia’s open soundstage.
By the time the chorus dropped in, the song kept getting more and more interactive as we listened to the sound of Michael and Quincey’s hands clapping together on the fourth beat at the end of each bar. It’s like the duo is right there. Closing our eyes, there’s the sensation that we can almost clap our hands along with them. This is musical immersion down to the microscopic detail and at its absolute finest.
At Regular Price $4,400.00 $4,400.00 , Focal Utopia 2020 comes with a hefty price-tag. So, is it worth it?
Definitely. The Utopia receives a solid yes from the Audio Advice team for the right user. As a staff favorite here at Audio Advice, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t appreciate Utopia 2020. Deciding if it’s the right fit comes down to the headphone user’s preferred style of listening and the unique ergonomic scenarios required by the user. For more information on that, read our Headphone Buyer’s Guide for more help choosing the right headphone.
To compare all the Focal models together in one convenient place, check out our Guide to Focal Headphones. If you need the best headphone money can buy for on-the-go listening in more public settings, then consider a closed-back headphone like the Focal Stellia, instead.
However, if you’re a critical listener who prefers detail-oriented music, the Utopia by Focal is one of the best fitting headphones you can buy.
For more satisfying listening sessions that are unapologetically immersive in the privacy of your home or private office, step up to the bundled Arche Headphone Amp & Utopia 2020 Over-Ear Headphones package, and never look back. Seriously. We can’t recommend it enough. But we understand that hearing is believing, so if you hear it, we think you’ll believe in it just as much as we do.
Sound Signature — Analytical/Detailed/Resolute.
Who it’s for — Critical Listeners.
What it’s for — Detailed Oriented Music.
How to get peak performance — At Home or in Private Settings.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
The geometry of the new driver profile provides a larger emissive area for energy generated by the Utopia’s driver to discharge. This means a louder speaker with a higher break-up point compared to headphones with a regular dome-shape.
Great Top-end Sizzle
The Utopia’s open-back design provides a full-range loudspeaker sound with a detailed sense of presentation that has the best top-end sizzle we have ever heard in a headphone (period).
Resolute Sound Signature
The Utopia’s sound signature is deeply satisfying for critical listeners who like listening to detail-oriented music the most.