For most of my “Art+Tech” columns so far I’ve led with the music. More often than not, I’ve used the art to see how well a piece of technology can reproduce it.
This time, the choice was clear. With Focal’s spectacular Utopia headphones ($4999, all prices in USD) in the house, I felt like I’d been asked to invite a few select guests to meet my beautiful, regal arrival. The headphones had been delivered by a breathless Diego Estan, of the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, who assured me that I would love them. You can see the detailed lab report of how the ’phones performed here.
I did fall in love, but it was like discovering you don’t speak the same language as a beautiful French princess who has arrived in your circle. You’re not sure you understand half of what she purrs to you. You know whatever being communicated must be worth hearing; you just don’t know what it is.
Let’s examine expectations and reality. I’m 68, and my ears have taken a lot of abuse: working around loud guitar amplifiers, and years as an FM radio host, cheap headphones clamped to my ears, spinning punk rock and blues at high volume in the early ’80s. More than once, I’ve participated in post-dinner discussions and comparisons of various degrees of tinnitus with fellow music critics, many of whom share my radio background. I’m sure my range is not as good as the average listener, and I adjust my expectations accordingly.
If you’re going to invest five grand in headphones, you’ll definitely have expectations.
On paper, the Utopias set high expectations. Released originally in 2016, the new Utopias are claimed to have a sensitivity rating of 104dB/1mW at 1kHz, THD of <0.2% at 1kHz/100dB SPL, and a frequency response of 5Hz–50kHz. The manufacturer promises “exceptional clarity of sound” from the beryllium-dome speaker drivers.
Despite the luxurious materials employed—beautiful, soft leather on the elegant headband and lambskin-covered memory-foam earpads; sleek, honeycomb grilles that provide a glimpse of red from the speaker driver covers inside—the Utopias weigh in at just a shade over a pound. The key to both the light weight and comfortable fit is the forged recycled-carbon yoke—another design touch that will have you thinking about the Utopias the same way you might think about high-end automobiles.
As with a fine car, the build quality throughout—including the cabling and faux-leather carrying case—is impeccable. And, as with luxury performance cars—whose manufacturers will claim their vehicles leave virtually nothing between the driver, cocooned in gorgeous, climate-controlled leather, and the road—Focal would have you believe that “the headphones totally disappear, leaving audio signal reproduction that is unrivalled in its purity.”
I’ll endorse the latter claim, but in terms of comfort, they’re still headphones. No matter how fine the leather—and true, it’s exceptionally fine—or how light they have been engineered, there’s still a limit to how long you’ll want to have them strapped to your head. In that regard, I’m reminded that—during the times I’ve been forced to wear headphones at home (neighbors, young children, spouse who hates Hendrix, etc.)—headphones force you to choose your music wisely. The Utopia ’phones will make you choose only the best. Give them that.
Determining which artists to invite to this party took some time. I wanted music that I knew well enough that I’d recognize added depth or clarity, but not music that I’ve heard so many times that I wouldn’t be listening critically. And I wanted to cover a range of genres and formats.
What I came down to were four pieces of music I love, but don’t listen to very frequently. These four “guests” also have very little in common in terms of the recording or editing techniques that were employed in creating each final album.
Seated at the table were: on vinyl, Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light ’til Dawn (Blue Note BST81357); on CD, Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson (Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2150); and for hi-rez digital files, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (Warner Bros. Records / ProStudioMasters, 2015) and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (Warner Bros. Records / ProStudioMasters, 2013). Given our fancy guest of honor, all the invitees were in their best finery: Cassandra was swathed in designer half-speed vinyl, by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio; Miles’s disc was as shiny and slick as one of the trumpeter’s Ferraris—mastered by MoFi’s Shawn Britton; while both Neil and Van were looking and sounding fabulous in 24-bit/192kHz WAV attire.
Wilson’s Blue Light ’til Dawn was the Mississippi-born singer’s breakout album. Recorded at several New York City studios and released in 1993, it was her Blue Note debut and featured a number of lesser-known improvising musicians, including clarinetist Don Byron, cornetist Olu Dara, and violinist Charlie Burnham. Produced by Craig Street, the album represented a significant departure for the singer. Wilson had first attracted notice as a member of the loose association of musicians known as M-Base, who gathered around saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, and included pianist Geri Allen, cornetist Graham Haynes, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and others.
Wilson gained some attention with her recordings in the late ’80s, which involved various members of M-Base, and then released one poorly received album for Columbia. Her move to Blue Note—then several years into its rebuilding program under Bruce Lundvall—brought Wilson to a much broader audience. Working with Street, she put together a set of songs that spanned more than 50 years—from a pair of songs recorded by bluesman Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to some of Wilson’s own originals, and touching on Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell along the way.
It is the type of expansive, well crafted, and thoroughly unexpected recording that draws attention. Within three years of its release, the album had sold 250,000 copies; a solid hit for any jazz singer, and the kind of success that sent Blue Note after other vocalists like Norah Jones, Al Green, and Van the Man himself.
Taking charge of her own career, Wilson began to fashion albums that reflected her reality as an independent, Black, Southern woman whose singing style had been shaped by an extremely wide range of artists. She could sing as authoritatively from the songbook of The Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville” on her 1995 album New Moon Daughter) as she could from the work of Son House (“Death Letter,” which dates back to the 1920s in recorded music, and much further in Southern Black culture). But, as distinctively as she could range through various decades of American music, Wilson also displayed her singular style as a composer, including the sultry title song, which earned her a Grammy nomination.
I love this phase of Wilson’s career—both for the way she mined the American popular-music songbook, but also for how she made some unexpected pieces her own. During this period, I saw Wilson live in wildly diverse settings—from a nightclub in my hometown of Ottawa, to a concert-in-the-round setting in San Francisco, to a basketball arena in Spain—and while each show was different, Wilson completely inhabited this material onstage and created an intimate connection with her audience.
Intimacy is exactly what Wilson achieves on the opening “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a melody that’s been covered many times, by everyone from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, since Gene de Paul composed it for an Abbot and Costello film in 1941. Few versions have taken the song as slow, or invoked so much pain from Don Raye’s lyrics, as Wilson does. When she sings “you don’t know how hearts burn / for love that cannot live, yet never dies,” she makes you feel her loss. And when, on the title song, Wilson recounts all-night parties and the feeling of swaying in the arms of a partner who has set you aflame, you feel the heat. That intimacy was tangible through the Utopia ’phones, as was Burnham’s piquant bowing and the tart tone of Dara’s horn.
Cinematic in scope and imagery, and beautifully recorded, this remastered version of Blue Light ’til Dawn showed again why it’s one of my favorite headphone recordings, and it has never sounded better than it did through the Focals.
As strong as Blue Light ’til Dawn is, my favorite recording from this period of Wilson’s career remains her 1999 release, Traveling Miles. Ostensibly a tribute to Davis, Wilson put her distinctive stamp on songs like “Seven Steps” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but approached a broad range of other material with the same type of open-eared style that the late trumpeter had illustrated throughout his career.
That connection to Davis made the move to Jack Johnson an obvious one.
Recorded mainly in early 1970 and released February 24, 1971, the album was the soundtrack for a film about the legendary Black boxer that was nominated for an Academy Award in ’71. While Davis’s previous soundtrack recording—Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, commissioned by filmmaker Louis Malle for his 1958 movie of the same name—had been a series of short improvisations, recorded live in the studio with little-known French musicians, Jack Johnson seemed more like a rock LP when it was released.
While Davis sounds magnificent throughout, the focal point of the recording is British guitarist John McLaughlin, still two years away from forming his seminal Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although the Jack Johnson album is split into two “compositions”—“Right Off” and “Yesternow”—the album is actually one of producer Teo Macero’s masterfully manipulated creations. Melded together are parts dating back to 1969 and, in addition to Davis and McLaughlin, the cast includes: guitarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Steve Grossman, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, electric bassists Dave Holland and Michael Henderson, and drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette.
Scholars like Italian guitarist Enrico Merlin have teased apart the various threads that Macero stitched together (somewhere in the Wayback Machine online you can find material from their enlightening discussion at the second of three Miles Davis scholarly conferences that were staged by Washington University in the mid-1990s). As Macero explained at the conference, Davis would frequently leave all the editing to him, seldom even bothering to listen to the final result before he signed off on its release. His instruction to Macero when the decision was made to combine this material to meet the soundtrack request was typically terse: “Make it dance.”
Davis had taken up boxing himself in the ’60s, training with renowned champions like Sugar Ray Robinson. He understood, firsthand, the connection between musical rhythm and the rhythm of the ring. Feet, hands, head, body—movement was everything. In the ring, Davis—standing about 5′5″ and weighing about 120 pounds— quickly learned that he had to move to survive. The pacing of Jack Johnson reflected the spirit of the ring, while also expressing Johnson’s struggle to live as he wanted despite being a Black man in a racist America. Needless to say, the lessons of Johnson’s life (he had died in 1946 at the age of 68, as the result of a car accident) resonated during the early years of Richard Nixon’s presidency, and Davis was determined to create an album that communicated that resonance to an audience beyond traditional jazz fans. With its doubled-up rhythm section and electric guitars “set to stun,” Jack Johnson is rock in jazz clothing.
With the Mobile Fidelity disc in my NAD C 538 CD player and the ’phones back on my ears, McLaughlin’s guitar sounded fulsome and well positioned, but my memory was telling me the production sounded much more fragmented than I recalled. I unplugged the ’phones and moved across the room to listen through my Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers at the same volume. The soundstage opened up and Britton’s mastering became evident. Inside my head it had seemed like the worst kind of CD recording—harsh and metallic—yet flowing through my office air, the sound mellowed beautifully and the percussion extended palpably across my field of hearing. The Utopias seemed to contain everything; making the sound seem less natural. If Britton had mixed the tapes with headphone listeners in mind, perhaps he didn’t consider high-end gear like this.
I guess Miles is going to leave the party alone. He’ll be fine.
It may seem like a long, long step from Davis to my next guests, but I have my own logic to connect them—at least as far as Young’s brutally dark Tonight’s the Night is concerned. Recorded in 1973 and released in June 1975, just around the time that Davis began to flame out from drug abuse, Young’s masterpiece was inspired by the overdose deaths of bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young’s eulogy sounds as harrowing as Davis’s sounds defiant.
The album’s title song aims to make Young’s pain tangible, and it succeeds, painting a harrowing portrait through the singer’s strangled voice and rudimentary piano playing. Throughout the album, Billy Talbot’s bass sounds like a lodestar for the remainder of The Santa Monica Flyers, as Young had renamed Crazy Horse following Whitten’s death. It plods on as Young expresses his pain, confusion, and other raw emotions, and the intimacy created by the Utopia ’phones was uncomfortably catastrophic. Young had never sounded more human and present to me.
In both vocal tonality and subject matter, the links are obvious between Young’s doomed friends and the outcast riffraff of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, but sonically they’re miles apart. Young, being the sound painter he is, designed Tonight’s the Night to seem messy and a bit dangerous—reflective of its subject matter. An example of how Young designed the album to sound deliberately sloppy: Nils Lofgren, one of rock’s finest guitarists, plays piano on most of the tracks.
Despite its harsh, Belfast back-alley subject matter, Astral Weeks has a fine, light-handed cast of musicians, even if the original sound production—by Brooks Arthur, who made his name in the recording studio with girl bands and other pop acts—seems a bit dated in the way he managed things. There is a Kevin Gray remaster that Warner Bros. released in 2015, but I haven’t heard it.
Arthur’s mix places Morrison’s voice squarely in the center, and keeps it louder than everything else, even when the singer drifts into the kind of abstract lyricism that is his genius. Much has been written about Morrison’s lyrical mysticism and poetic inspirations by music scholar Greil Marcus and others. Astral Weeks revealed those inspirations to an audience that was anticipating more blue-eyed soul in the vein of “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Gloria.” Instead, on the title track, Morrison gave them incantatory opening phrases like “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream,” over Jay Berliner’s stabbing guitar figures and John Payne’s ethereal flute. As Morrison told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, when he revisited the album in concert, “the songs are poetic stories.”
What stories they are. Morrison’s impassioned performances are matched by the intensity of Berliner’s playing throughout, and Richard Davis’s gorgeous, darkly woody bass tone is a constant—probing, echoing, and underlining the spirit of Morrison’s storyline. One of the most delightful songs of this era is Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” and the guitar, bass, and Connie Kay’s silky cymbals just danced in my head with otherworldly quality through these ’phones. As many times as I’ve heard this album, I’ve never experienced it with the intensity or clarity that the Utopias delivered.
Now, as revelatory and enjoyable as that experience was, would I be prepared to pay so much for it, and, to my earlier point, could I get an equivalent experience for far less money?
Just as you wouldn’t put down $15,000 on a high-end Gibson Les Paul guitar, or—returning to the subject of high-end automobiles—splash out $185,000 for a new Porsche 718 Spyder in Racing Yellow without spending some hands-on time with a test model—you’ll want to spend some time listening to some music you know and love.
After comparing the Utopia headphones with my own humble HiFiMan HE400i ’phones, I have to say that while I was captivated by their company, I didn’t enjoy the Focals at a level commensurate with their price. As car manufacturers say in their fancy commercials: Your mileage may vary.
. . . James Hale