Hands on: Focal Utopia

Heaven on earth? Focal's 'loudspeakers for your head' headphones may come close

Beautiful to look at and silky smooth to listen to, the Focal Utopia headphones are worth saving up for

Loudspeakers belong in your living room. They aren’t, commonly, strapped to your head. French audio experts Focal think that’s all wrong, and believe that loudspeakers, or at least the audio experience provided by them, should be available from a set of really excellent headphones. It took four years to realize, but now we have the Focal Utopia, a set of beautiful headphones packed with industry-first technology, to caress your eardrums with the sounds usually only associated with a sizable set of floor standers.

Hands on: Sennheisser’s $55,000 Orpheus headphones

“It’s hard to listen to a piece of music in a room, then get the same vivid experience using headphones,” Focal said at CanJam London 2016, where Utopia received its European unveiling. “You miss the thump in the chest. The presence.” To replicate this, Focal used an entirely new manufacturing process to come up with a pioneering full-range 40mm driver, coupled with an M-shape dome made of Beryllium, that is capable of producing both low and high frequencies. Focal says this low-mass, high-rigidity material has 2.5 times the sound velocity  and 37 times the rigidity of titanium, and the resulting frequency response is 5Hz to 50kHz.

The drivers are mounted off-center and deep-set inside the open back cups for improved stereo imaging, and surrounded by aluminum and carbon fiber. The cushions are made from lambskin leather and a special perforated fabric, which has been formulated to help create a balanced, vivid sound while avoiding excessive reverb.

Focal’s built the Utopia to last, right down to a pair of shielded, self-locking LEMO connectors, the same type it says is used by the French army due to incredible reliability in challenging conditions. The headphones have been drop tested to 1.7 meters, although we’d expect anyone investing the $4,000 needed to secure a pair to do their utmost to avoid any floor/headphone interface disasters.

Even before you put them on, it’s obvious these are very special headphones.

Even before you put them on, it’s obvious these are very special headphones. The box they come in is massive, and contains not only the ‘phones, but also four meters of low-impedance OFC cable, and has a faux soundproofed lining. It’s an event just opening the magnetic clasp holding down the top. Take them out, and admire the stunning design. We adore the carbon fiber hangers, the sleek weave showing through just enough to be seen, and the sci-fi influenced yet still traditional-looking woven mesh over the open back cups.

Put them on, and and you’ll find it hard to believe the Utopias weigh nearly 500 grams. Due to careful design of the headband, they really don’t feel heavy once they’re on. There’s no pressure on the top of your head or over the ears, with no uncomfortable “hanging.” Instead, they almost feel part of your skull.

Plugged into a Naim DAC V1 headphone amp, we listened to a variety of different tracks. 808 State’s In Yer Face sounded superb — rich, noisy, and aggressive — but didn’t demonstrate the Utopia’s party piece: spaciousness. This came with Maroon 5’s Never Leave This Bed, which sounded almost completely different, in a good way, than any time I’d heard it before. Vocals were tight and centered, while the instruments were seemingly flung outside the normal restrictions of a headphone. I listened again, and again. It’s impossible to say whether Focal has achieved its goal of making headphones sound like a set of large speakers after such a short test, but this certainly proved they’re capable of putting in a dynamic, wide, and realistic performance. It bodes well for a longer, more varied test.

However, the Utopia are very, very expensive, and that’s before you buy all the equipment to really make them sing. They’re obviously a money-is-no-object purchase, but on the basis of what we heard, probably worth every penny. They’re up for pre-order through Focal’s website now.

Highs

  • Gorgeous to look at
  • Industry first technology
  • Lofty ambitions
  • Wonderful audio performance

Lows

  • Expensive
Wearables

The rotating bezel on Samsung's Gear S2 is a twist of interface genius

Samsung is on a roll with designing nice devices, and the Gear S2 is its best-looking smartwatch yet. It also has a cool rotating bezel and Samsung Pay. Read our hands on impressions here.
Smart Home

Samsung launches refreshed SmartThings Hub in push to get inside your home

Samsung used its much-anticipated presentation at IFA on Thursday to unveil a slew of new devices for the connected home. First up was a refreshed Hub with a more powerful processor enabling video monitoring and improved performance.
Home Theater

Forget the flat form factor, HDR is the finest feature on LG’s new OLED

The LG EF9500's flat form factor is all fine and good, but what's getting missed in the excitement is its ability to process and display HDR (High Dynamic Range) content for a more realistic viewing experience than ever before.
Mobile

Samsung releases SDK for the Gear S2, announces apps from ESPN, Uber, Nike, and more

Samsung's released an updated Tizen SDK for the new Gear S2, and alongside it announced new apps from Nike, ESPN, and others. The development kit supports standalone functionality and features like the Gear S2's unique bezel.
Cars

BMW announces smart home apps and more at IFA 2015

At the 2015 IFA Show, BMW announced integration of Samsung's SmartThings system, a new version of its i Remote app for Samsung smartwatches, and other tech projects and initiatives.
Wearables

The TomTom Spark GPS Fitness Watch lets you listen to your music without your phone

Now you leave your phone at home the next time you go for a job. The new TomTom Spark GPS Fitness Watch can store up to 500 songs for your listening pleasure.
Smart Home

Electrolux shows off in-oven cams, Custom Flex fridges, clothing-care app

Electrolux, parent of Germany appliance manufacturer AEG, debuted a smart oven with a built-in camera, a dryer that handles silks, a modular refrigerator, and more at IFA 2015.
Smart Home

The new iKettle wakes you up and brews your tea earlier when traffic is bad

Smarter, maker of the iKettle, debuted its connected Coffee maker and iKettle 2.0 at IFA 2015. The kettle will wake you up early when traffic's bad, but don't worry: There will be hot water for a cup of tea.
Smart Home

KitchenAid’s three-piece sous vide system is decadently delicious

At IFA 2015, KitchenAid showed off the new design for its Chef Touch, a three-piece sous-vide system that costs 10,000 euros. It vacuum seals your food, cooks it, then quickly freezes it.
Cars

Android Auto isn’t good enough for Galaxy phones, Samsung will push Car Mode instead

Samsung phones already work with Android Auto, but the Korean giant wants to push its refreshed Car Mode instead. Users can connect their Galaxy phones to car infotainment systems via MirrorLink or use a standalone mode.
Home Theater

Ecoxgear’s new speaker can do anything (even open your beer)

The Ecoboulder+ is a powerful new speaker from Ecoxgear that features 100 feet of Bluetooth range, a rugged exterior — even a bottle opener.
Home Theater

Sling TV expands Spanish language programming

With the addition of a South America package, Sling TV positions itself as the streaming service with the most content in Spanish in the United States.
Deals

LG’s most affordable OLED TVs now come with $170 to $260 in gift cards

Trusted electronics retailer ABT is offering LG's most affordable OLED TV, the B8 series with $170 and $260 gift cards for the 55- and 65-inch models, respectively. While the OLED TVs don't often go on sale gift cards like this are…
Home Theater

Google Chromecast returns to Amazon just in time for the holiday shopping crunch

It's been a chilly few years between Google and Amazon, but things may be improving. You can now buy two versions of Google's Chromecast on Amazon, something that hasn't be possible since 2015.