The French loudspeaker specialist Focal made its first entry into the headphone market space some years ago with its original Spirit headphone—a design that was later expanded upon to become an entire range of Spirit models. Looking back, the Spirit headphones were and still are perfectly good mid-priced entries that feature a number of praiseworthy design touches. But one thing the Spirit models were not was a no-holds-barred assault on the state-of-the-art in headphone performance. In retrospect, the absence of a top-tier headphone offer from Focal seemed odd given that the firm enjoys a reputation for constantly pushing the performance envelope of loudspeaker performance (with models such as the justly famous Grande Utopia EM system) and for making some of the finest loudspeaker drive units on the planet.
Not surprisingly, many asked if Focal might ever give its formidable design team free rein to develop a true top-class headphone. The answer is that Focal has now has done so, ‘releasing the R&D hounds’, so to speak, to develop a stunning new pair of high-end headphones: the upper-echelon Elear (£800, or $999) and the cost-no-object flagship Utopia (£3,400, or $3,999). Since we, like many of you, are always eager to see and hear what a company like Focal can do when it decides to pull out all the stops, we asked if we could try a review sample of the top-of-the-range Utopias and Focal graciously obliged.
The nearly four-year long Utopia development effort began with a thorough investigation of the unique requirements of headphones and their associated drive units—an effort that led Focal to apply its formerly loudspeaker-centric design expertise in an entirely new way. Focal set the ambitious goal of designing headphones that, in Focal’s words, would “offer an audio experience worthy of the brand’s high-fidelity loudspeakers.” With that objective in mind, Focal found it useful to think of its new headphones as ideal “compact ultra nearfield loudspeakers,” and specifically loudspeakers “with a perfect frequency response.” Naturally, Focal also wanted its design to offer exceptional resolution, exemplary transient response, uncommonly good stereo imaging, and low distortion. The resulting design effort ultimately focused in three areas: driver development, frame design, and ergonomics.