Focal Clear Headphones – Review

Focal Clear Headphones – Review


This is my review of the new Focal Clear open backed on ear headphones, retailing near £1,500 (UK, Jan ’18) these are a must listen if you are near this budget for a pair of high-end headphones. I was fortunate to hear Focal’s new range of headphones last year, the higher end Utopia and the Elear headphones, but at the time I (and others) noted a glaring gap in price between the two products.  Focal ClearThe Focal Clear headphones are priced nearer to the Elears.  They have benefitted from the design philosophy of the two other siblings, indeed the Clears are the same size, have a similar yoke design and just look and feel like the others with the model detail on the side of the ‘can’.

Beryllium v Aluminium/Magnesium – Design

The Utopia headphones, and indeed the Sopra ranges, benefit from Focal’s Beryllium M Dome technology.  The Focal Clear headphones have an Aluminium/Magnesium M Dome driver.  Where the Beryllium driver is light, stiff and fast (and very expensive) the Aluminium/Magnesium driver in these Clear headphones is similarly rigid and offers a relatively fast response, however the costs associated are a lot less (by a large multiple).  The Clear headphones have a new copper voice coil unlike the Utopias and this gives an apparently better dynamic response in the driver.  (Looks to me like the next Utopia headphone upgrade may get the new copper voice coil to improve it still further).

Look and Feel

Focal ClearFocal Clear

these headphones as tight but light, they’re very comfortable

The Focal Clear headphones come in a rather attractive soft feel box with plenty of logos.  Lifting the lid reveals a grey carry case, with a leather handle revealing the ‘Listen Beyond’ Focal tag line.  Also revealed is a slim box jammed with cable accessories, more later.

The headphones are in the carry case, they emerge, beautiful, with the new headphones ‘smell’.  The look and feel is a really nice thing, they are just perfect with a leather covered aluminium yoke, similar to the Utopia, that is slightly spring loaded, and has just enough in terms of flexibility and wiggle.

The ear cushions are a 20 mm foam cushion with a soft feel micro fibre covering that matches the headband, the cushions are dotted with 1mm perforations.

Focal ClearSo the first thing to do is have a quick listen.  I choose the 3m long balanced cable (XLR 4-pin) that goes into two (left-right) 3.5mm mono connectors that ‘ lock’, or click really, into each can.  The cable is braided with a cotton shield, that cuts out rubbing and any electrostatic charge.  I’m going with the XLR output from a headphone amplifier as this is probably the best way to appreciate and get the most from these headphones.

On the ears the Clear headphones are very roomy over the ear, I would so far as to say ‘airy’, if that is a word.  They are also surprising ‘open’, I can hear everything with them on which is great for pretending not to be listening to headphones and actually enjoying yourself.  If you shake your head vigorously there is movement, though no suggestion they’re coming off.  I would describe these headphones as tight but light, they’re very comfortable.

A word, I guess, on the grey colour of the headphones which is the only option by the look of it.  The colour grows on you.  I would probably prefer a black pair but really it is not a big deal.

Focal Clear Cables and Accessories

Focal Clear Focal Clear

The Focal Clear headphones come with a choice of cables in the accessories box.  These are:

  • a 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)
  • 3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack)
  • 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack)

The terminal points are all beautifully finished with Focal’s logo to the fore.  The cable selection is very nice but does seem to me to be a bit over the top.  Indeed, you may have been able to save a few quid by having the option of having one or all three.  In my view you are unlikely to be switching between an XLR output and a 1/8″ jack for portable use but that is what is provided.  No complaints at the choice though.

The carry case’ ‘handbag’ is interesting.  It also fits Elear and Utopia and is available to purchase separately and you can fit a portable device in there too.  It has to said, tasteful though it is, I’ll not be on public transport carrying just the case, it is very…. continental?

Focal Clear Specification

Here’s the spec from Focal’s site.

  • Type: Circum-aural open-back headphones
  • Impedance: 55 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
  • THD: 0,25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
  • Frequency response: 5Hz-28kHz
  • Loudspeaker: 1.6″ (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium, ‘M’-shape dome
  • Weight: 0.99lb / 450g
  • Cables provided:
  • 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)
  • 3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack)
  • 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack)
  • 1/8″ jack to 1/4″ stereo jack adapter
  • Hard-shell carrying case provided: 250x240x120mm

Note, the impedance is lower than the Utopia, implying portability, though the cable choices point to home use with the 3m XLR and 6.35mm jack.

Performance

Review set-up

Questyle CMA 400iMy review set-up has been primarily with the most excellent Questyle CMA 400i using the balanced output cables provided by Focal in the box.  My source has been USB input from an iMAC using either the Tidal desktop software or the J River player with a range of hi resolution music from my library, including DSD files.

Toneality

So it is with delight I feel there is a measure more bass depth in these headphones

I think I wrote for my review of the Focal Utopia,  ‘they are not made for the beats generation, thank goodness’.  This was certainly not a criticism and the bass control was exemplary, however, I think I would have been forgiven for thinking the Utopia headphones were a fraction bass shy?  So it is with delight I feel there is a measure more bass depth in these headphones.  They are rounded, smooth and totally under control.  Mid ranges, vocals are crisp and clear.  There is no harshness to the higher end notes delivered, have a close listen to ‘Maybe’ by The Three Degrees.

Overall after prolonged, fatigue free, listening and little writing I feel these headphones are balanced nicely across the piece

Resolution

I really struggle to imagine anything sounding better than this

As expected , the detail from these headphones is absolutely fantastic.  My goto high resolution 24 bit recordings of, for example, ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and Ryan Adams’ ‘Carnegie Hall’ performances are absolutely beautiful and I really struggle to imagine anything sounding better than this.

Dynamic Performance

Channel separation with these headphones is as you would expect, very clear.  I usually listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ to hear this with the intricacies and it is really fun.  I also listen to Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ to measure the dynamic performance of the drivers.  There is here great speed of delivery by the drivers as you zero in on the booming, driving, beat.  There is no hint of fuzziness or cloud in there, wonderful.

Soundstage

The soundstage is meaty, driven by the Questyle amplifier.  It is a really full and rounded, controlled sound with most vocals front and centre of the presentation, right between the ears.

6.35mm Jack instead of balanced XLR ouput

I’m bound to say the difference for me is not noticeable particularly, I’ll always prefer the XLR output, because it ‘feels’ like it should sound better, but obviously this is utter nonsense.

Questyle CMA 400i headphone amplifier

Questyle CMA 400iA note on the brilliantly flexible Questyle CMA 400i headphone amplifier and DAC leant to me by SCV Distribution for this review.  It is retailing near £800, has balanced stereo output as well as balanced headphone output.  It is perfectly built, the right size for a desk and does absolutely everything you would want without imposing any undue characteristics on your music.

Nexus 6P smartphone

Using the 3.5mm cable jack to the Clear headphones is not likely to be a long term game.  However, a cursory listen to a few 24 bit tracks on my phone revealed, or rather confirmed, the huge amount of detail to be delivered by these exceptional headphones.  So a good hour or so later, I was left reflecting that my 24 bit copy of the remastered OKNOTOK sounded as good as hoped, with excellent control, depth and precision.  Indeed it confirms to me what an excellent music player the 6P can be in Aeroplane mode.

Overall

With the beautifully balanced playback from the headphones, the comfort, the accessories and the overall package, at this price, these are exceptional headphones for home use.

The Clears are priced nearer the Focal Elear but perform nearer to the higher end Utopias.  I would certainly recommend these headphones to anyone who is looking for home use headphones at this price.  It just makes me wonder if there will be a Beryllium Clear?

Absolutely Love

Overall Balanced Sound

Airy Comfort

Like

Controlled bass response

Braided cables

Cable choices

Weight

Wish

I could afford them

The carry case was more ‘street’

With thanks to SCV Distribution for the loan of the wonderful Focal Clear headphones and the Questyle CMA 400i headphone amplifier

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