Price (RRP): $1,599 (presently available for $1,399)
Obviously, most of the head and ear-gear we review on these (virtual) pages is Bluetooth connected. But for the highest quality you still can’t beat wires. And good, old-fashioned over-ear headphones. Which brings me to the Focal Elear headphones.
Focal Elear features
Focal is a French firm that has a long history in loudspeaker manufacture. It’s a highly respected company, with some top-notch products. A few years ago I visited Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, and it turned out that it was using Focal loudspeakers to demonstrate the then-new Dolby Atmos system.
Focal has a several headphone models out. The Focal Elear are kind of the “entry-level” models (yes, the others are even more expensive than around $1,600.)
One of the unusual design elements of Focal loudspeakers is the frequent use of “inverted dome” tweeters, in which the dome tweeter is concave outwards rather than the more usual convex outwards. These headphones use what Focal calls “M-Shaped Dome” drivers. I’m not quite sure what that is, but it sounds a little like the inverted dome. The drivers are 40mm in size and made of an aluminium-magnesium alloy.
These are “open back” headphones. That means that the outside of the diaphragm is vented, indeed covered only by a protective grille, rather than enclosed. That design choice has certain implications. First, it means that the effects of a confining enclosure behind the driver are eliminated. (In a closed design, the diaphragm movement is fighting against the enclosed air, which wants to be neither compressed nor rarefied). That tends to allow freer movement of the cone.
It also means that you will hear much of what’s happening around you. The diaphragm offers little resistance to external sounds. Probably not the best choice in noisy environments. And it also means that people around you will be able to hear what you’re listening to.
Physical features of the Focal Elear headphones
The headband is aluminium and leather. The earcups use memory foam and are covered by a soft microfibre cloth. My ears aren’t small, but they tucked comfortably inside. The headphones were indeed a comfortable wear, even after several hours. I suspect that they may be a little too warm on my head at the height of summer. But that’s the case with just about any over-ear headphones.
The Focal Elear headphones come in a sturdy box with a shaped foam insert to hold the headphones securely. The cable is three metres long and quite heavy. At the headphone end it is terminated in two mono 3.5mm sockets which plug into the cups. At the other end it has a proper 6.35mm (quarter inch) headphone plug. Included is a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adaptor cable. With a suitable replacement cable, these headphones are well suited to use with balanced headphone outputs.
Focal rates their frequency response at 5 to 23,000 hertz. Their nominal impedance is 80 ohms. Sensitivity is reasonably high at 104dB for 1mW input at 1,000 hertz. Focal says that the total harmonic distortion is low: less than 0.3% at 100dB output, measured at 1,000 hertz.
What I like to hear
I confess up front: I’m fussy about headphones. Extremely fussy. The fact is, headphones generally deliver more of the music than loudspeakers, yet I prefer generally listening through loudspeakers. Especially very good loudspeakers.
Which is, of course, what I use. My desktop sound system consists of a pair of KEF LS50 loudspeakers and a rather nice little Krix 8-inch subwoofer which resides under my desk. The speakers are driven by an old Yamaha home theatre receiver with 100 watts of low distortion power on tap. It also manages the crossover to the subwoofer. This is a near-field sound system that is pretty much as accurate as it gets. It can be incredibly subtle, or it can rock me to my soul if I advance the volume control.
And, for the past couple of months, I’ve been listening mostly through headphones. That is, through the Focal Elear headphones. Indeed, ever since the brand’s August Australian relaunch.
Headphone design is unforgiving, and extremely hard. When you listen to loudspeakers, the sound is moderated to some extent by the air in the intervening space, and moulded by reflections from various surfaces within the room. And filtered and processed by the shape of your head and the folds in your ears.
Headphones remove most of those variables. They’re pretty much injecting sound directly into your ears. (In-ear models, even more so since their outlets are lodged into the outer part of your ear canals.)
For me, many headphones are too “bright”. They deliver too much treble. They simply don’t sound much like real life, where treble is softened by the environment.
Listening to the Focal Elear headphones
But that was not the case with the Focal Elear headphones. They sounded like a hybrid of the virtues of headphones, and the virtues of loudspeakers.
For my ears at least, the frequency balance was just about perfect. The treble was present, powerful as required, but not overpowering. As I write this, I’m listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ album from the year 2000, It’s Like This, delivered in Direct Stream Digital format. The bells in “Show Biz Kids” are beautifully rounded, yet not piercing. The detail is first class. There’s a sense of the strike of implement on those bells. The acoustic bass is powerful, but smooth. The bass frequencies are perfectly integrated with the harmonics. The thing sounds like an acoustic bass, not an acoustic bass reproduced in the home.
That got me wondering about bass. Occasionally, when I’m feeling adventurous, I put on the Hugo Audiophile CD1 from 1992. (Was there ever a CD2? I don’t know.) This is a Chinese production and much of the music isn’t to my taste. But Track 2, “Overture of the Dagger Society Suite”, features some of the most powerfully recorded bass drums ever. And regardless of the output level I set on my headphone amplifier, it came through with complete power, with the near-infrasonic rumble intact, but also with a certain smoothness and aplomb suggesting that the limits of the headphones were far from being reached.
A bit of pipe organ
Moving on to Bach – don’t worry, I’ll be returning to the 21st Century soon – the bass line on the organ work, Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor, was both impressive and restrained. Most of the Bluetooth earwear I’ve been using lately has a tendency to bass emphasis, so at first listen the bass of this work seemed a touch soft. But it wasn’t. It was balanced. It was at the level it ought to be.
Want headphones to blow your bass socks off? Look elsewhere. Want headphones that deliver the bass accurately, as the recording engineers and artists at the other end of the recording chain wanted? Try the Focal Elear headphones.
Which brings me to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which, I confess, I only came to a few weeks ago. There was no doof-doof of the kind that you might hear from a passing motor car. But there was a solid, energetic bass line that had limitless power, but remained controlled and, well, just right.
The same applied to Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade. Truth is, it’s a relief to hear the lyrics and other elements of the music without having to strain beyond overdone bass.
The Focal Elear headphones delivered everything in the music, from delightfully smooth massed strings, to the grind of the individual string in one of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. Keith Moon’s drumming on Tommy was delivered with authority, clarity and power. Subtlety, power. It was all there.
What can affect the sound of the Focal Elear headphones
A word is perhaps in order on listening equipment.
For various technical reasons, the output impedance of a headphone amplifier matters to the sound quality of headphones. Or it doesn’t. It depends on the headphone design. Some – most – headphones have an impedance that varies depending on frequency. That’s usually the case with loudspeakers, too. That matters very little, if at all, if the output impedance of the headphone is low. With regular amplifiers for loudspeakers, they are almost always low.
But headphone amplifiers are all over the place.
So, do the Focal Elear headphones have a flat impedance across the frequency range? Or does it vary? I’d expect it to vary, since it’s a dynamic design (planar magnetic headphones tend to be even).
I usually listen with a headphone amplifier with a very low output impedance – less than half an ohm. That’s what I was using for my listening impressions above.
But when I listen to, say, Lemonade with a device with an output impedance of around 100 ohms, the experience is different. The bass is noticeably more prominent … and dare I say, quite a bit more exciting. I feel confident that it’s less accurate, but that doesn’t take away from the impression. I’d prefer to listen to Lemonade with this power feed than with my notionally more accurate headphone amplifier.
What Focal provides for use the with Focal Elear headphones
Focal produces its own (very expensive: $3,799) headphone amplifier called the Arche. It has a number of settings for Focal’s own heapdhones. It’s output impedance for the Focal Elear headphones is around ten ohms. So perhaps that’s the ideal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this unit available when I was preparing this review. I’m tempted to construct a headphone load box so I can add various output impedances to my regular headphone amplifier.
Anyway, the long and short of it is: with a high quality, low impedance headphone amplifier, the Focal Elear headphones deliver wonderfully accurate and listenable sound. With worse, high impedance headphone amplifiers (at least, up to 100 ohms) these things sound even better with a lot of music, even though I’d suggest they’re less accurate.
(There’s a fair bit of technical stuff in the preceding. With a proper review, that’s inevitable. But in how many reviews do you even see the acknowledgement that many headphones sound different with different headphone amplifiers … and the reason why they do?)
All I can say is that you can take your Bluetooth headphones from big brands and small and put them to one side. If you want to hear what’s really in the music, and enjoy it fully, have a listen using the Focal Elear headphones.