My Focsl Utopia Sound Dull and Constrained out of the Box. Possible Causes?

If the headphones sound great with the stock cables you then start seeking suitable longer cables, trying multiple options on a sale or return basis. If they sound much the same with the stock cables you arrange an exchange for different headphones with the dealer who convinced you they are tye right headphones for you.


You would then be able to start a thread called “My Headphone cable sounds dull and constrained out of the box” - and you would be sure to receive some pertinent advice.


When I received my Cardas Clear AES/EBU cable the info from Cardas with the cable advised they would need about 200 hours of use before they would sound at their optimum.
I would think the Cardas Headphone cable would also require a similar burn in period.
I agree trying the Focal cable that came with the headphones, assuming it has a 6.35mm connector for the SN3 would be a good test to evaluate the sound signature of the Utopia’s to rule out any undue cable influence of the sound quality.

@MoonDrifter Thanks. The default Utopia cable lacks proper termination. Also if cable length is a factor then compression is meaningless. Your suggestion of extended break in makes sense.

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It either eliminates or establishes if there is an issue with the cable. If it’s the cable, then it’s either burn in, or the length. Personally, although there will be burn in, I think it should still be good out of the box. If it’s the length, then you are left with looking at a headphone amplifier run off a long interconnect from the SN.

As an aside, when I had a SN2, I used a headphone amp, as I found the SN headphone amp to be a bit lacking in drive.

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@Mike_S Thanks. my electrical outlets for running an external headphone amp with long interconnects are very limited in our NYC apartment. That is why I could never consider active speakers or mono amps. Our apartment is plaster, concrete, cinder block and wire mesh. WiFi is non existent in some places and adding new outlets would be a b***h and a major undertaking. That is why I have a power conditioner for the extra outlets.

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Ive had SN2 and SN3 and used B&W P7, Beyerdynamic T5 Gen3 and Focal Stellia headphones on them, all using 3m cables and I never found either of the SN’s lacking drive, its a good headphone amp in the SN’s, especially when enhanced by a HiCap DR.
You would need to spend alot of money on a standalone headphone amp to significantly better it, or you had very difficult to drive headphones that need a very large amount of power to drive them.

When I got the Audio Sensibility cables for my HD800’s I had them pre burnt-in, so it might pay to leave your new ones playing for a few days and see whether the sound opens up.

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@Mike_S I will. Also I will try and contact Cardas re break in time. Thanks so much.


In my experience headphones do open up and improve with time, but it doesn’t take long. Leave them playing for a couple of days continuously. I doubt cable burn in will dramatically alter the sound. Subtle changes maybe.

If not better then you should be talking to you dealer who sold you the combination without a demo. I’d be careful to agree to spending any more on your system without trying alternatives first. The stock cable suggestion above makes total sense at least to try to separate out what is affecting the sound most.

‘Constrained and dull’ doesn’t seem right for Utopias. I had the Stellia on demo which is a similar design and those would be the last words I would have used.

I assume you have an option to exchange if not happy since you weren’t able to demo?


Just noticed another of your posts. Maybe take your power conditioner out? Easy to try. Some people say they can make the music dull.

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@BruceW Unless I am missing something, the 3m stock cable that comes with the Focal Utopia has an XLR termination at the end. The SN3 requires a 1/4 inch termination. Even if I wanted to try the stock cable and compare it to the Cardas cable (ignoring the cable length differences) I could not b/c of the termination issue. The stock cable is suited for the Atom HE or external amps that offer an XLR input. Since I upgraded to the NDX2 with its XPSDr power supply, it made no sense to consider the Atom HE as streaming quality is better with the NDX2/XPSDr.

Adapters exist. We are not trying for a permanent solution with the stock cable, just trying to see if the Cardas is ‘the problem’. Then you can look at alternatives in your chosen length.

Is your dealer helping you here? I’d want them lending you different headphones. Maybe an adapter as above?

If everything you try sounds dull then you need to think beyond the Focals. It is about being logical.


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This is the information from Cardas website regarding break-in;


Cable Break-In
Note: An in-depth description of cable break-in follows. However here’s the TL;DR - just plug in your cables and use them.

Many things need time to break in. For example: denim jeans, guitars, and cast iron pans.

How many wear/wash cycles until your jeans feel great?
How many chords & notes until a guitar plays like a dream?
How many meals must it cook before a cast iron pan is fully seasoned?

These aren’t questions we usually ask. We acquire the jeans, guitar, or cast iron pan. We use it, and we know that it will improve over time.

Yet when it comes to HiFi equipment, people often become fixated on the break-in period.

In a HiFi system, the speakers can take weeks to really come alive. A power amp will need time for the capacitors to fully charge, both when new, and after being turned off for any period of time. And yes, your cables will need time to settle in and perform as designed.

But don’t stress too much about it. Think of it like getting a new pair of leather boots. You put them on, and they feel stiff. How many steps does it take for those boots to break-in? 50,000 steps? 100,000 steps? More??? Nobody really knows. You just wear the boots, ignore the stiffness, and one day you find yourself thinking “Wow these are the best boots ever”.

Likewise with cables - plug them in, leave them plugged in, and enjoy your life.

We emphasize that they should be left plugged in. When you remove a cable, you lose much of the progress towards break-in, such that when re-connected, you’re basically starting over. If you enjoy swapping cables for comparisons, that’s fine. Just know that you’re really comparing un-broken-in cables, even if one (or both) pair has hundreds or thousands of hours of use. Once removed, they no longer benefit from that usage. Upon re-installation, they’re starting over as if they’re new.

With that, here’s what’s going on during cable break-in:

There are many factors that make cable break-in necessary and many reasons why the results vary. If you measure a new cable with a voltmeter you will see a standing voltage because good dielectrics make poor conductors. They hold a charge much like a rubbed cat’s fur on a dry day. It takes a while for this charge to equalize in the cable. Better cables often take longer to break-in. The best “air dielectric” techniques, such as PFA tube construction, have large non-conductive surfaces to hold charge, much like the cat on a dry day.

Cables that do not have time to settle, such as musical instrument and microphone cables, often use conductive dielectrics like rubber or carbonized cotton to get around the problem. This dramatically reduces microphonics and settling time, but the other dielectric characteristics of these insulators are poor and they do not qualify sonically for high-end cables. Developing non-destructive techniques for reducing and equalizing the charge in excellent dielectric is a challenge in high end cables.
The high input impedance necessary in audio equipment makes uneven dielectric charge a factor. One reason settling time takes so long is we are linking the charge with mechanical stress/strain relationships. The physical make up of a cable is changed slightly by the charge and visa versa. It is like electrically charging the cat. The physical make up of the cat is changed by the charge. It is “frizzed” and the charge makes it’s hair stand on end. “PFA Cats”, cables and their dielectric, take longer to lose this charge and reach physical homeostasis.

The better the dielectric’s insulation, the longer it takes to settle. A charge can come from simply moving the cable (Piezoelectric effect and simple friction), high voltage testing during manufacture, etc. Cable that has a standing charge is measurably more microphonic and an uneven distribution of the charge causes something akin to structural return loss in a rising impedance system. When I took steps to eliminate these problems, break-in time was reduced and the cable sounded generally better. I know Bill Low at Audioquest has also taken steps to minimize this problem.

Mechanical stress is the root of a lot of the break-in phenomenon and it is not just a factor with cables. As a rule, companies set up audition rooms at high end audio shows a couple of days ahead of time to let them break in. The first day the sound is usually bad and it is very stressful. The last day sounds great. Mechanical stress in speaker cables, speaker cabinets, even the walls of the room, must be relaxed in order for the system to sound its best. This is the same phenomenon we experience in musical instruments. They sound much better after they have been played. Many musicians leave their instruments in front of a stereo that is playing to get them to warm up. This is very effective with a new guitar. Pianos are a stress and strain nightmare. Any change, even in temperature or humidity, will degrade their sound. A precisely tuned stereo system is similar.

You never really get all the way there, you sort of keep halving the distance to zero. Some charge is always retained. It is generally in the MV range in a well settled cable. Triboelectric noise in a cable is a function of stress and retained charge, which a good cable will release with both time and use. How much time and use is dependent on the design of the cable, materials used, treatment of the conductors during manufacture, etc.

There are many small tricks and ways of dealing with the problem. Years ago, I began using PFA tube “air dielectric” construction and the charge on the surface of the tubes became a real issue. I developed a fluid that adds a very slight conductivity to the surface of the dielectric. Treated cables actually have a better measured dissipation factor and the sound of the cables improved substantially. It had been observed in mid eighties that many cables could be improved by wiping them with a anti-static cloth. Getting something to stick to PFA was the real challenge. We now use an anti-static fluid in all our cables and anti-static additives in the final jacketing material. This attention to charge has reduced break-in time and in general made the cable sound substantially better. This is due to the reduction of overall charge in the cable and the equalization of the distributed charge on the surface of conductor jacket.

It seems there are many infinitesimal factors that add up. Overtime you find one leads down a path to another. In short, if a dielectric surface in a cable has a high or uneven charge which dissipates with time or use, triboelectric and other noise in the cable will also reduce with time and use. This is the essence of break-in
A note of caution. Moving a cable will, to some degree, traumatize it. The amount of disturbance is relative to the materials used, the cable’s design and the amount of disturbance. Keeping a very low level signal in the cable at all times helps. At a show, where time is short, you never turn the system off. I also believe the use of degaussing sweeps, such as on the Cardas Frequency Sweep and Burn-In Record (side 1, cut 2a) helps.

A small amount of energy is retained in the stored mechanical stress of the cable. As the cable relaxes, a certain amount of the charge is released, like in an electroscope. This is the electromechanical connection.

Many factors relating to a cable’s break-in are found in the sonic character or signature of a cable. If we look closely at dielectrics we find a similar situation. The dielectric actually changes slightly as it charges and its dissipation factor is linked to its hardness. In part these changes are evidenced in the standing charge of the cable. A new cable, out of the bag, will have a standing charge when uncoiled. It can have as much as several hundred millivolts. If the cable is left at rest it will soon drop to under one hundred, but it will takes days of use in the system to fall to the teens and it never quite reaches zero. These standing charges appear particularly significant in low level interconnects to preamps with high impedance inputs.

The interaction of mechanical and electrical stress/strain variables in a cable are integral with the break-in, as well as the resonance of the cable. Many of the variables are lumped into a general category called triboelectric noise. Noise is generated in a cable as a function of the variations between the components of the cable. If a cable is flexed, moved, charged, or changed in any way, it will be a while before it is relaxed again. The symmetry of the cable’s construction is a big factor here. Very careful design and execution by the manufacturer helps a lot. Very straight forward designs can be greatly improved with the careful choice of materials and symmetrical construction. Audioquest has built a large and successful high-end cable company around these principals.

The basic rules for the interaction of mechanical and electrical stress/strain variables holds true, regardless of scale or medium. Cables, cats, pianos and rooms all need to relax in order to be at their best. Constant attention to physical and environmental conditions, frequent use and the degaussing of a system help it achieve and maintain a relaxed state.


Rather interesting read.



So, how long then? :rofl:


  1. I’m coming from the opposite end of the Focal range but my Eligia required about 50 hours running to sound at their best.

  2. The Utopias are high high high-end headphones. You’re going to need a better headphone amp than the SN3 to drive them. Plenty of online reviews for something suitable.

  3. You can get adapters for headphone leads.

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I think a shorter read would be ‘use these cables for long enough that you give up worrying about it so wont return them.’

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Focal ship cans without a quarter inch jack? Wow.

According to Focal’s website, they come with two cables; one with an XLR and one with a 3.5mm plug, as well as an adaptor for 1/4” sockets. It would therefore be really easy to use the cable with the adaptor as a temporary measure, which would isolate whether or not the Cardas cable is an issue.

Exactly as I would have expected - thanks.

That is my feeling, too. I do not think any “burn in” of a cable can change its character, though if you persist long enough you might become accustomed to it…

And I don’t feel the cable length is so ridiculous as to make it impossible to find something that works. If the phones work with the stock cable (and you can get XLR adaptors if that is the termination), proving the Cardas is the problem, then two options suggest themselves: One, as I suggested earlier, is get your friendly dealer to accept the Cardas back as unsuitable, and let you try alternatives on a sale or return basis until you find one that works. The other is try a headphone extension cable. There are plenty about - most have the problem that they are not “reassuringly expensive”, but amongst others they are used by professional musicians, and at “throwaway” money you have virtually nothing to lose. (Have a quick Google).

If the sound is bad with the stock cable it is unlikely any alternative cable will make them better and the solution is obvious…