For most of us, wearing headphones is merely a way to drown out subway sounds, office workers, jabbering gym-goers and whatever other noisy distractions bombard them throughout their day. So almost any buds or cans that are loud and thumpy enough get the job done.
Others—not as a statement of intellectual or socioeconomic superiority, but merely personal preference—take pride in savoring the quality of the audio they ingest, in the same way foodies delight to culinary masterpieces. It's with this latter group in mind that French audio company Focal created Utopia, arguably the best headphones ever made.
Other than a magnetically sealing lid, there's nothing terribly fancy about the box they arrive and are stored in (unless you get the optional stand). But what's inside is truly amazing, starting with the materials chosen for their specific look, feel and performance.
The drivers are pure Beryllium, a precious metal 30 times more costly than gold, known for its high rigidity to weight ratio. The yoke is carbon fiber—always a strong and sexy choice, but especially good for flexing as it does. And the headband and memory foam earcups are covered in luxurious lambskin. Altogether, they feel great for however long you wear them.
Even the cord is fancy. Dual shielded Lemo connectors, each with a self-locking bayonet system, connect to pass the very best audio possible to each ear. And naturally, for headphones of this caliber, they converge and eventually terminate (some 13 feet later) in a 1/4-inch jack. That's the one that's too big to fit your tablet or phone—assuming it has a jack in the first place.
So how do they sound? Glad you asked. In a word: sublime. In several others: superb, pristine and—having carefully listened to literally hundreds of all manner of earphones and headphones in my experience—unequaled.
Though I haven't listened to the world's most expensive headphones, I heard their slightly less outlandishly pricey $16,000 predecessor a couple of times and believe these $4,000 cans outdo them. Still, I wanted to see how they fared in a real-world test against a set of headphones many humans might actually consider purchasing. So I went to the North American headquarters of Beyerdynamic right when they first unveiled the DT 1990 Pro.
Using a rig set up by Beyer—including their company's amp and an iPad and playlist they supplied—I listened to the 1990s first. They sounded fantastic. Once I had a feel for their sound, I performed what I call The Metallica Test. I listened to the intro to "Enter Sandman" on both sets of open-backed headphones literally side-by-side.
With their high-performance Tesla driver (not that Tesla driver), Beyer's headphones still sounded great, but the Utopia blew them away. It was almost like a Corvette Z06 racing a Koenigsegg Regera. Two awesome machines, one clearly superior. "Sandman"'s acoustic guitar was precise, the high hats crisp and by the time bass drums kicked in, I was convinced that Lars Ulrich was right in the room with us.
Naturally, while Focal's succeeded in creating a headphone that rivals their highest end loudspeakers for power, design and sound quality, they're simply not for everyone.
But anyone looking to upgrade their basic headphones [BEATS, cough, cough] to something more refined and high-resolution audio-friendly should check out the $600 DT 1990 Pro. They're versatile, stylish, come with both a straight and coiled cord (each of which include a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter) and a second set of comfy removable earpads that offer a slightly bassier—yet still civilized—sound.