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Headphones

The world's best headphone?

Sure, it's expensive, but the Focal Utopia redefines what it means to be an audiophile headphone in 2016.

Just when you thought the high-end headphone market peaked, along comes another mind-bending 'phone! This new one's from Focal, France's best-selling speaker brand, and while they've been making perfectly fine headphones for years, the Focal Utopia is in a very different league.

The Utopia digs deeper into the sound of music than other headphones, so as I listened to Miles Davis and Gil Evans' big band recordings I could more clearly follow each instrument within the orchestra. Davis and the other players' subtle shifts and shadings in dynamics were revealed like never before. That quality makes recordings closer to the sound of live music, which is a big part of what makes the Utopia such a remarkable headphone. The best Sennheiser, Hifiman, Grado, Beyerdynamic and Audeze headphones can't match the Focal Utopia on that score.

The Focal Utopia (left), the Focal Elear (right) headphones

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Yo La Tengo's album "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out," a record I've played many times, had more textural detailing and three-dimensional body over the Utopia. It sounded like a remastered recording.

I used two headphone amplifiers, the Pass HPA-1 and the Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL (with its newly revised power supply), for all of my listening tests.

The Utopia is an open-back, over-the-ear design with ultra lightweight 40mm pure beryllium dome drivers, and it's the only headphone in the world with that type of driver. Focal has used beryllium tweeters on its best speakers for years, but even so they invested four years of engineering time to develop the headphone driver and the tooling to manufacture it.

Impedance is 80 ohms, and sensitivity is unusually high at 104 dB/1 mW, making the Utopia easier to drive than most other high-end headphones. It's heavy, just over a pound (about half a kilo), but I found this a very comfortable headphone to wear for extended periods of time, thanks to the sumptuously padded ear cushions and headband. The headphone comes with a user-replaceable 13-foot-long cable terminated with a 6.3mm plug, but that's a really long cable, I wish Focal had also included a shorter cable.

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Each Utopia is hand-crafted by a two-person team at the Focal factory in France, one technician makes the driver, the other one makes the rest of the headphone. Utopia's impeccable build quality exceeds most of the world's top headphones.

The Audeze LCD X and LCD 3 headphones sounded a little veiled and dark by comparison. Not only that, the Utopia is lighter and more comfortable than those headphones. The Hifiman HE1000 was better overall and more transparent than the two Audeze headphones, but the Utopia was even more so. It's more alive and images wider than any Audeze or Hifiman headphone.

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The Utopia in its deluxe case

Focal

Listening to the extremely well recorded orchestral score for the video game The Banner Saga, I'm hearing vertical height in the soundstage, so some of the sound is coming from above my head! I find I can play the Utopia louder than I normally would because the sound never hardens, but the uber clarity also lets me play music more quietly too, because I don't have to turn up the volume to hear the more subtle sounds on a recording.

As I was finishing up on the Utopia review I compared it with another new Focal headphone, the Elear, which looks very similar to the Utopia. They sound similar as well, but the Elear sells for one quarter the Utopia's price, and delivers a good helping of the Utopia's sound. The differences lie in transparency, resolution of fine detail, and harmonic richness. The Utopia is significantly better, but if you never heard it the Elear would be all you'd need, it's that good.

If one headphone tops the Utopia it's the Abyss AB-1266. In head-to-head comparisons the AB-1266 was even more vivid, with a more spacious, precisely focused soundstage. Returning to the Utopia the sound lost some immediacy, but I'd readily concede that most people, including a lot of audiophiles, would choose the Utopia over the heavier and bulkier AB-1266. The Utopia is a lot more comfortable, and since it's easier to drive, it's a lot less finicky about amplifiers. Oh, and the AB-1266 ($5,495, which is about £3,800 or AU$7,400) is more expensive than the Utopia.

All of the new Focal headphones go on sale in North America on June 29. The Utopia has a suggested retail price of $3,999 (about £2,800 or AU$5,400 converted), and the Elear is $999 (roughly £700 or AU$1,350). David Carnoy checked out the new $249 Focal headphone, the Listen.