Its been long waited event to review the Focal Utopia and Elear against my own Audeze LCD4. After reading alot about Utopia and Elear I saw people compared Utopia against HD800S and Hifiman HE1000. Only a few attempts to compare it against Audeze LCD4. Out of the few LCD4 comparisons Ive read, the equipment they used didnt impress me, as LCD4 has to be driven with a powerfull Amplifier to open up entirely in the whole sound specter to make sound reproduction as accurate as possible. The second aspect is that LCD4 is 200 ohms VS Utopia 80 ohms. The fact that Amplifiers have a tendency to round the edges off and smooth the music if you turn the volume control up passed 1 oclock made me worried about the reviews Ive read.
So, I wanted to review the Utopia and Elear on the same setup as I run home with and as close to my setup as I can get in the shop where I reviewed the headphones. That means I had to bring with me some equipment.
SPOILER: Just to say it immediately. The Focal Elear impressed me to a level I can not express for the price the headphone cost. I am speachless. For 990 dollars you can purchase true high end headphones with a great soundstage. If I were in the market for new high end headphones, the Focal Elear is what I would purchase. About Focal Utopia it needs more explanation.
Laptop –> USB –> Intona USB separator –> USB –> Schiit Yggdrasil –> Nordost Heimdall 0.6m XLR3 signal cables –> Violetric V281 –> Nordost Heimdall 2 Audeze cable –> Audeze LCD4
One of the most interesting aspects of my setup is the USB galvanized separator. It provides galanized isolation between the DAC and the general purpose laptop, also it helps the DAC with timing the packets as accurate as possible. It can be heard very clear the difference in instrument separation and bass and medium tone reproduction with and without the Intona USB separator.
I have been experimenting with spdif and AES to the Schiit Yggdrasil like this:
Laptop –> USB –> Intona USB separator –> USB –> Tascam ADC/DAC AES OUT –> short AES cable –> Schiit Yggdrasil –> Nordost Heimdall 0.6m XLR3 signal cables –> Violetric V281 –> Nordost Heimdall 2 Audeze cable –> Audeze LCD4
Once I connect either SPDIF and AES to the Schiit Yggdrasil and still keeping the Intona USB separator in the mix, the sound changes to a more muddy soundstage especially around mid-tone and bass reproduction. Bass just gets sloppy, medium tones and instruments gets mixed together and it doesnt sound as clear anymore.
The reason for this is playing through SPDIF / AES / Coax, the source, being the Tascam UH7000 unit is responsible for the digital packet sync and clock. The DAC is simply following the sync being sent from the source. In this case the Tascam UH7000 doesnt stand up in digital reproduction to rest of my equipment.
Using USB, the DAC is responsible for the clock and timing of the packets. The DAC sends a steady clock signal through USB to the Laptop and asks it to send packets in the clock sync it sends. What happens here is that a general purpose unit as a laptop can make electrical noise on the digital cables so the electric circuitry in the DAC is affected by the noise and might in some DAC cases like my Yggdrasil sound a little off and not clear enough, and this can be fixed adding a USB galvanizer with a high grade oscillator on the electric circuitry which the Intona USB separator does.
Off to the shop:
So I brought my laptop, USB cables, Intona USB separator, and my Audeze LCD4 with my Heimdall Nordost 2 cables to the shop.
Thank you DUET AUDIO in Bergen / Norway to allow me to review the Focal Elear and Utopia against my Audeze LCD4 for almost 3 hours and leaving me almost entirely alone listening to all 3 headphones. Better support from a shop we have to look hard to find!
At the shop, I found the same Headphone Amplifier I have at home, the almighty Violetric V281, and used with the V850 DAC. I thought, great, now I just have to check if soundstage is the same as home, so I connected my LCD4 and immediately found the sound to be a bit muddy just like I found with AES/SPDIF at home. The shop used an ipad with an Auralic streamer and COAX to the V850 DAC, so I decided to connect my laptop to the V850 DAC with my USB separator, and immediately soundstage was correct as I am used to at home.
Focal Utopia and Elear comes with a large size jackplug connector, different from my Audeze LCD4 which is being used with XLR4. But, here is the BIG but, Focal cans are 80 ohms, while LCD4 is 200 ohms. So to compare Focal Utopia Jackplug vs Audeze LCD4 XLR4 isnt completely wrong, even though I want at some point to review Focal Utopia with XLR4 too.
Therefore in my review, I went from these different combinations throughout my listening library for music and Headphone reviews:
Laptop –> USB –> Intona USB separator –> USB –> Violetric V850 –> unknown signal cable –> Violetric V281 –>
Nordost Heimdall 2 Audeze cable XLR4 –> Audeze LCD4
Nordost Heimdall 2 Audeze cable large Jackplug –> Audeze LCD4
Stock Focal cable Large Jackplug –> Focal Utopia
Stock Focal cable Large Jackplug –> Focal Elear
Once I was happy with the soundstage with my Audeze LCD4, I played through my review songs once, and a few of them twice just to ensure what I was used to is what I heard.
The headphone is an interesting build, immediately snapped on my head, it is light, comfortable and doesnt push too much on my head as Im used to with LCD4. That is a great plus to the headphone. It felt like a weight train was gone, like a relief.
I started playing the song 5 A.M. with David Gilmour. the guitar was dead spot on, it felt more relaxed than my LCD4, more natural than my LCD4. This is not a complex song to reproduce for headphones, and I expected the Utopia to play it very well. It is the same with HD800S on this song, the song snaps right in and its a heaven to listen to. I wanted the Utopia to impress me, so I listened to the guitar play 2 times and I had gooze bumps on my skin as it was pure heaven.
I wanted the Utopia to impress me with piano and some instrumental music but I didnt want it to be too complex and too many instruments, so up next was the A Heart of Hearts – Lionel Choen. This song is partially piano song with computer generated instruments in grand scale with violins that gives me gooze bumps. The song has some deeper thumps of piano which I know on my LCD4 it knocks hard into my head and is very dynamic. With Utopia it was like the piano and violin was breathing light air and it totally got me hooked. Then the violins came, and I knew this is a damn good headphone. Can it tackle the bass extension too, as I felt on this song I was missing the thump on darker piano play.
Next beautiful vocal!! The song Wild Horses with Tim Ries. Immediately I found instruments to be spot on, great instrument separation, and an out of this world beautiful female vocal. Just like Im used to on my LCD4. I usually play this song loud as my setup controls this song very well. Then the saxophone came. I jumped in my seat with Utopia, it was like the saxophone was screaming to me in my ears. It really hurt. so I took down the volume and played song again. The same happened even at lower volume level. It seems I found a weak spot with Utopia.
Time for some more complex songs. Lets see if Utopia is up to the task of instrument separation and epic soundstage!
The song Strength on a Thousand Men, Thomas Børressen. It is a complex song with alot of instruments. This is a song that deserves XLR4 for instrument separation with LCD4. It has drums, brass, massive male and femal choir, dramatic violins. It explodes almost halfway through the song in a firework of instruments. Only the best of the best headphones can deal with this type of song. I closed my eyes. Goosebumps with the Focal Utopia. Great Instrument separation, vocals were intense. I couldnt understand how I could get this kind of instrument separation through jackplug, the LCD4 dont do this through jackplug. Only when I use XLR4 the LCD4 separate instruments to a similar level. I guess the 80 ohm on Utopia is the reason for this vs 200 ohm on LCD4.
Now its time for one of my favoruite explosion songs, the Master of Shadows with Nick Phoenix and album Invincible. This song explodes half way with choir, and massive amount of instruments mixed together and hard hitting drums on all levels. This song, I usually experience hitting hard listening to it as the brass is deep and overwhelming. Again instrument separation is great, just like my LCD4 on XLR4 cable. But, big but, the song didnt slam and hit me hard. I also had to turn down the volume with Utopia as at some higher frequencies it cracked in my ears, like some higher frequencies are too bright.
After these songs, I switched to LCD4 with jackplug, listened halfway through the songs, and switched to XLR4 with LCD4. I found soundstage to be equal with the Utopia, but Utopia has more air and breathes lighter than my LCD4. But mid-tone and bass extension is way more accurate on LCD4 than the Utopia. I replayed the Wild Horses song to look for the saxophone, and I played the song loud and clear as I used to at home, no screaming saxophone. The song Master of Shadows were played with a slam and no uncomfortable tones in higher register and superior instrument separation.
Focal Utopia Conclusion:
So here I have been listening to a 4000 dollar headphone that is crystal clear from mid-tone and up, dead rock steady on with jackplug, but an issue in some higher frequencies like the high saxophone and complex music might scream into my ears, but with less accurate bass extension and not so accurate mid-tone and down. Also I had to turn the volume down for some of the songs to deal with the higher tones. The vocals were damn beautiful and violins breathes like air Ive never heard before.
I am not impressed for a headphone that cost 4000 dollars to miss out on a few important steps. In this case I am more satisfied with the LCD4 which gives a soundstage that suits 95% of the songs out there from Rock, pop, hard rock, blues, violins and big orchestras. If money were not an issue, the Focal Utopia is a complement to the LCD4 in the sense that it would be great to switch to Utopia with songs I know the headphone plays better, and go to LCD4 when I know there is great bass extension and rock and hard slam with great soundstage. But owning 2 pairs of 4000 dollars headphones is too much for most people, so I would recommend the Audeze LCD4 in this sense for most of the available songs, and spend some dollars on a good XLR4 amplifier. Focal Utopia deserves a damn good Amplifier and DAC too. Therefore the high end setup for both LCD4 and Utopia would have to cost enough to play at a ultra high end level.
There is ONE aspect I would recommend Focal Utopia, and that is for those few that want the best headphone to reproduce music with mostly jazz, vocals and lighter orchestras the headphone is superior to LCD4. Also if a smaller amplifier is necessary due to space requirements this headphone is the goto for high end as it is only 80 ohms and can easily be driven by a pocket amp/dac.
It is time for the baby brother or sister to be thrown into the mix. How can it cope with the 4000 dollar competition on the same signal path as I spent 2 hours listening too ?
Focal Elear cost 990 dollars !! It is what I will call a gieaway in this sense, and the headphone can NOT be compared to either LCD4 or Utopia as it is in a different price range entirely.
This headphone also has 80 ohms, so it suits very well for those with a smaller headphone amplifier that can drive them easily.
I started playing the easy songs I knew Utopia would reproduce with gooze bumps. Female vocals were spot on, very nice indeed. Violins were spot on, light airy and breathes nice air. Not as thin as the Utopia, or the LCD4 for that matters. But just a 0.2 step down from the 4k competition.
I played the song Master of Shadows, as I did with Utopia, and this is where I clearly heard why this headphone cost 990 dollars. The instrument separation were not as good, some instruments got mixed and the mid tone appeared muddy because of this. But, for the price of 990 dollars, it is great soundstage. it is a 0.5 step down from a whole step down from the 4000 dollar headphones. Thats not bad ! This is also one of the most complex songs next to the song Hes a Pirate with Klaus Badelt. This headphone is NOT supposed to have that kind of soundstage for that price.
Then I started playing some songs that are more normal, less complex and good rythm and slam that can give enough air up top. I threw a new song into the mix, The album Autumn 3 Recomposed by Max Richter The four season remix with electrical rythm instruments, epic violins, some drums and female vocals on different places in the song. Wow, that was an impression I wont forget. The song had air up top, nice accurate rythm, slam, and I really enjoyed the song with Focal Elear.
Then I thought, I might be on to something here. Forget about the complex songs with this 990 dollar headphone and give it normal songs, like the 5 A.M. with David Gilmour, and the Life is a Musical with Datarock. Those songs were really enjoyable with Focal Elear! They were just damn good. To be honest, the upper sound register is like Utopia really good, but the Elear also has deeper bass extension than Utopia, so it sounds better for normal music which is not too complex than the Utopia. this is weird as the Utopia cost 4000 dollars and Elear cost 990 dollars. I have read on forums around that some people switched the pads from Elear to Utopia and experienced a better bass extension. But this is not something people can afford to do and we should not expect people to do so to adjust the Utopia to a better level.
I was then thinking about the target group the Focal sales organization has for this headphone and its spot on. for 90 % of the music thats available this headphone delivers the music reproduction to a good High End standard for 990 dollars, and it is only 80 ohms so its easy to drive from a headphone amplifier either from pocket size to full table size.
Focal Elear conclusion!
My conclusion with Focal Elear is that is a HIGHLY recommended product, and myself is looking to complement my setup at home with Audeze LCD4 as some songs are just damn good with this headphone.
End Notes on Focal Utopia!
The fact that there are some spot on issues with Utopia, like what I heard the saxophone scream in my ears, and some songs that gets too loud at higher frequencies with a bass extension which isnt that good and a mid-tone that lacks extension down is not something we should expect from a 4000 dollar headphone. Also the fact that some people who can afford both Elear and Utopia has swapped pads and experienced better bass extension and more accurate mid tone with the Elear pads makes me think that Focal has some work to be done on the Utopia before it will be recommended as a high end headphone for 4000 dollars.
The Audeze LCD4 has the Utopia issues covered, but it has one weakness and that is how natural upper mid-tone to airy violin and piano and female vocals sounds. The Focal Elear sounds sometimes on more simple songs so great that it can compete with LCD4, but once the soundstage gets more complicated the LCD4 shines through the roof compared to Elear.
I think for the pricerange, Audeze LCD4 is easily complemented with Focal Elear, as LCD4 can be used in living room, and Elear on the go and by the computer in the office with a smaller amplifier.