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.